At the Berkeley School Board meeting Sept. 27, junior Laelah Jackson and other students talk about the distress caused by an offensive Instagram account and call for consequences for its creators. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

Berkeley High School students say they are shaken by the discovery this week of a private Instagram account featuring racist, anti-Semitic and ableist memes created by their peers.

Although the account has existed since the summer, it was brought to the attention of many students and the BHS administration at the beginning of this week when screenshots from the page were shared in a group chat and reposted by a leader of the Black Student Union.

The account was reportedly called “I Hate Jews” and included posts featuring swastikas drawn over students’ photos, anti-black racial slurs, students doing the Nazi salute and derogatory references to people with disabilities. One post was reportedly a screenshot from the app “Find My Friends,” where a BHS student had set his home address to Auschwitz.

Berkeleyside has not confirmed the content of the posts, though administrators said the descriptions above, provided by students, were accurate. Students who helped reveal what was in the account have told Berkeleyside they are planning to release a statement including the images later today. We will update the story as new information becomes available.

Students said they were disturbed to find out that several of their classmates had created the memes, and that many more had followed the account and “liked” the posts.

“Some of them were our friends, people whose houses we went to, people we got lunch with, people we thought were cool,” wrote junior Laelah Jackson, 15, in an email to Berkeleyside. “And to find out how they truly act and feel hurts.”

On Monday, members of the Black Student Union put out a call for anyone involved in or affected by the revelation to come to their meeting Tuesday.

“Fortunately, both those affected and those accused showed up, as well as many more students and faculty,” Jackson wrote. During the meeting, some admitted culpability, and in Jackson’s view “some of them did seem sorry, and some did not.” As the students filtered out of the meeting, a black student got in a “physical altercation” with one of the white creators of the Instagram page, ultimately hitting him.

That student, along with several Black Student Union members and Jewish students, attended the Berkeley School Board meeting Wednesday night to try to put what happened after the BSU meeting in context and to call for harsher consequences for the creators of the Instagram page. Both the student who hit his classmate and one creator of the account have reportedly been suspended, but BUSD does not comment on disciplinary actions. Berkeley High Principal Erin Schweng said the administration is actively investigating the account, to continue to determine who was involved and figure out the appropriate consequences.

Student: It is ‘hard and draining’ to sit in class with meme creators

During the public comment period at Wednesday’s School Board meeting, Jackson, speaking alongside some classmates, said she wanted the students involved in the account to receive “sensitivity training” and anti-racist education before they are allowed back at school.

“In no way are we justifying the violence that occurred yesterday, but we felt the Berkeley High administration acted very quickly in suspending a student defending himself from hate speech,” Jackson said during the public comment period. “It is evident that Berkeley High knows how to handle issues surrounding physical harm, but the lack in knowledge of what to do when it comes to emotional harm is baffling.”

A Jewish junior, Helena Busansky, 16, said during public comment that it is “incredibly hard and draining” to sit in class next to the students responsible for the offensive images.

“When you allow these boys to use the ‘n-word’ and you allow them to draw swastikas everywhere, you allow hate rhetoric at our school that has killed members of many families of many people in this room,” she said.

Berkeley High is reeling from the discovery of a racist and anti-Semitic Instagram account run by students. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

Schweng said administrators were disturbed to see the Instagram posts and began investigating them immediately Tuesday morning, meeting with students who were involved and affected. She sent a letter to all Berkeley High families alerting them to the “deeply offensive and discriminatory content” on the Instagram page and describing some of what the administration planned to do in response.

While the investigation continues, the administrators are considering taking a number of different steps to help the students who feel distressed by the revelations, Schweng said Thursday morning. Already, several students involved with the account and several who feel hurt by it have agreed to participate in restorative justice circles, but “there’s prep work that must be done for that to be successful,” she said.

“In any case like this, there are really, really low moments, and moments where Berkeley really shines,” Schweng said. “Teachers were talking with students throughout the day in helping and healing and positive ways.”

It is a challenge for schools to figure out how to address bullying and discrimination that occurs online, said Schweng, noting that education policy has not kept pace with the advent of social media. In her letter to parents, Schweng encouraged them to talk to their kids about appropriate internet use. BHS students have used Instagram and other platforms to post offensive content and harass students in the past too, most notably to create a “slut page” featuring photos of female students in 2014.

School Board president: We have an ‘obligation’ to help affected students

During the Wednesday meeting, School Board members made unusually personal and forceful statements in support of the students reeling from this week’s events.

There is no denying the existence of prejudice and discrimination in Berkeley, said board president Ty Alper.

“When students go to school afraid of their peers or knowing that they’re thought less of because of the color their skin, or because of the yarmulke they wear on their head, or because of the gender of the person they’re dating or because they have a disability, that compromises the learning environment in a way that we have an obligation to address,” he said.

Alper choked up while saying the “incredible, resilient, brave, brilliant students” and their compassionate, devoted faculty and staff give him hope that these challenging issues can be worked through.

Juniors Madison Lease (in black) and Helena Busansky speak about the pain the memes caused them as Jewish students. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

Superintendent Donald Evans told the students he would be available to them.

“It’s tough for me hearing this because I’ve experienced what you’re going through,” said Evans, who is black.

Many of the students at the meeting said there have been other racist incidents and racial tension on campus, so the discovery of the Instagram page was not alarming.

“It hurts, but I wasn’t surprised,” sophomore Sanai Dominick told Berkeleyside at the meeting.

Some said the events brought back memories of an incident in 2015, when a student loaded violent racist threats on a library computer and prompted hundreds of students to walk out of class in protest. The student responsible for the threats was identified and reportedly expelled.

The issues at Berkeley High also mirror recent incidents at high schools and colleges across the country, and institutions have struggled to figure out the appropriate response. Over the summer, Harvard rescinded its admission offers to at least 10 incoming freshmen who shared racist and sexually violent memes in a private Facebook group chat. Closer to home, a judge barred Albany High School from holding expulsion hearings for students involved this year with racist Instagram posts featuring photos of their classmates.

Natalie Orenstein reports on housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. Natalie was a Berkeleyside staff reporter from early 2017 to May 2020. She had previously contributed to the site since 2012,...