Berkeley High. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

Campus culture and safety issues have bubbled to the surface at Berkeley High School this week, with students publicly accusing their classmates of sexual assault and their administration of failing to prevent it.

“It was a long day at Berkeley High,” said Principal Erin Schweng, making a rare public comment at Wednesday’s School Board meeting.

Earlier, graffiti had appeared on a school bathroom stall door listing names of “boys to watch out 4” and labeling some as “rapists.” A few days prior, an anonymous student sued BUSD and individual staffers for allegedly failing to report or adequately address an attempted rape reported on the Berkeley High campus.

Students have described a palpable climate of fear and anger on campus this week. Some are planning to walk out of class in the coming days to protest how the administration handled events.

“Students have seen the system fail us over and over again, within the Berkeley High community and beyond,” said a BHS senior, speaking during the School Board meeting. “We have brought reports to admin and to the police. Because no one knows what to do, students have resorted to becoming our own informants.”

The lists of names “aren’t simply call-out culture, gossip or bathroom graffiti,” she continued. “They are a warning, a cry for help.” (The list was rewritten on two additional stalls after the school removed the original, students said.)

In emails to the student body and BHS families Wednesday and Thursday, Schweng said staff has been meeting with students who feel “impacted” by the bathroom graffiti. The principal described additional steps the administration plans to take to improve safety and comfort on campus.

“The admin team and I care very much about how these experiences affect students,” Schweng wrote to students Wednesday evening. “Each of you should be able to come to school, feel safe, learn, and enjoy your experience.”

woman speaks at podium
Berkeley High Principal Erin Schweng tells the School Board that BHS needs more support to carry out student safety and education plans. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

She told students the administration is “working to bring in some folks with expertise running restorative justice circles to address sexual harm incidents, so that students can express their thoughts and feelings as well as have an opportunity to move toward justice and healing.” Schweng also said the school is looking into ramping up education about “affirmative consent” across all grade levels at Berkeley High. To parents, she said the school already works with the Berkeley Police Department when a student reports a crime, and makes counseling services available to students.

At the School Board meeting, the principal made an unusual public plea to district officials for more resources to carry out those plans.

In her letter to students, Schweng also said that, while the administration cares about all experiences students have with sexual harm, students can only be suspended or expelled if the incident happens on campus. Those legal limits on what adults can do can lead to a perception among students that the school doesn’t care about or isn’t addressing serious issues, she said.

However, the lawsuit filed last week calls into question whether staff is following mandatory reporting laws and district policies for incidents that do occur on campus.

In conversations and on social media, students have said the latest events are symptoms of a “systemic rape culture” the school has failed to address for years. Students formed a group called BHS Stop Harassing in 2014 after male students created “slut accounts” on Instagram featuring photographs of female students. The organization is still active, trying to raise awareness of harassment at Berkeley High and hold the administration accountable.

In the wake of this week’s incidents, at least one recent Berkeley High graduate has contacted the principal to express despair that assault and harassment issues are “still occurring unresolved and unacknowledged.” She said a group of alumni wants to offer support to current students.

One current senior, Abby Sanchez, 17, told Berkeleyside it’s infuriating to learn that these issues have plagued Berkeley High for years. She said her generation of students must be the one that finally changes the culture.

“This has to stop, and some class has to take a stand,” she said. “We feel hurt and damaged and we need to translate that to action.”

On Thursday, Sanchez was part of a group of students that wrote up a list of 10 demands for the administration, including schedule changes for alleged aggressors, guaranteed suspension or expulsion for students who are found guilty, a week of excused absences for assault survivors, and an apology from staff.

Meanwhile, BUSD’s new Title IX coordinator, the district-level administrator who handles complaints about assault and harassment, has recently resigned from her post, effective at the end of February. She was the third person in as many years to hold the job.

On a recent agenda of the district’s Sexual Harassment Advisory Committee, outgoing coordinator Mardi Walters recommended numerous steps the district could take to restructure and expand the Title IX position to be more responsive and effective.

At Wednesday’s board meeting, one student said there’s more to the story of sexual harm than simply a neglectful administration and preventable incidents.

Speaking at Wednesday’s meeting, Estella Hemp, the School Board’s student member, said there are intertwining, nuanced issues for which everyone holds some level of responsibility.

“Our culture isn’t something that’s just taught in schools, but built off-campus, at parties, community events and especially social media. This isn’t necessarily under the control of just the board, of just admin, or just the students, but everyone,” she said.

But, Hemp said, “students need to know that if they commit something so horrific and life-altering to someone else, that there will be consequences.”

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,...