Hundreds of students walked out of class to protest on Monday, “fed up” with issues around sexual assault on campus. Photo: Natalie Orenstein
Hundreds of students walked out of class to protest on Monday, “fed up” with issues around sexual assault on campus. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

Hundreds of Berkeley high students walked out of class Monday morning in outrage over what they describe as a campus culture and administration that enable sexual assault.

The event began in the campus courtyard and migrated to Civic Center Park, where dozens of students from diverse backgrounds shared intensely personal stories and impassioned calls to action at an informal open mic. Remarks veered from prepared talking points into candid, emotional and often angry accounts.

A girl talked about her assault in a middle school classroom at the hands of a student who’s still her classmate. A boy cried about the pain he felt learning he’d been unable to stop his stepfather from abusing his sister. Students of all ages implored their classmates to support survivors and cursed out their administrators for not doing enough to protect them.

Several of the students who spoke about traumatic memories walked off stage and straight into the arms of their friends, who embraced them.

“For a really long time, there’s been a lot of sexual assault, harassment and rape within our community,” Eliza Fosket-Hydes, one of the student organizers, told Berkeleyside. “I know the administration probably feels like they’re doing something. To us it does not seem that way. A lot of girls have been kind of fed up.”

Berkeley High students listen quietly in Civic Center Park as classmates tell intensely personal stories about their experiences with sexual assault and harassment. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

She and another walkout organizer, Lena Ostroy Harp, both 17, said many students feel like popularity and athletic prowess allow some boys to get away with unacceptable behavior.

Those feelings came to a head last week when graffiti appeared on bathroom stall doors listing names of Berkeley High students under the heading “boys to watch out 4.” Some of the students named were labeled as “rapist.”

The week before, an anonymous student filed a lawsuit alleging that school administrators mishandled and failed to report an attempted rape in a classroom. Berkeley police said a school mandated reporter (a staff member legally required to tell authorities about assault reports) did notify police about an incident in the days after the alleged report, however.

Administrators and students described a palpable climate of fear and anger at Berkeley High in the aftermath of the graffiti discovery. Staff held restorative justice circles with students, and Principal Erin Schweng appealed to the School Board for funds to expand classroom education on consent across all grade levels this school year.

The issues rippled beyond the school day, with the BHS boy’s soccer team canceling its game Friday evening against rivals Bishop O’Dowd.

“The coach made the decision to forfeit Friday’s game due to the overall heightened emotions on campus on Friday,” said BUSD spokeswoman Trish McDermott, in an email.

Some of the soccer players walked out of class along with their peers Monday morning, to participate in the courtyard rally. Some wore t-shirts that said “This is what an ally looks like.”

“We’re trying to navigate it all,” said Kalani Kossa-Rienzi, 17, about issues that have been connected to his soccer team. “We want to stand up for what we believe in. The bottom line is, we don’t condone sexual harassment or rape.”

Schweng sent two messages to Berkeley High families Monday, updating them on students’ whereabouts and the course of the walkout.

Last week, Schweng also wrote to students that there is some misunderstanding of what the administration is even allowed to do to address incidents of assault, particularly when they occur off campus.

“The admin team and I care very much about how these experiences affect students,” she wrote. “Each of you should be able to come to school, feel safe, learn, and enjoy your experience.” Berkeleyside has also asked BUSD for a response to the concerns raised by students and their decision to walk out of class in protest.

Walkout organizers kick off an emotional series of events Monday. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

Shortly after Monday’s campus rally started, Berkeley Unified administrators told Berkeleyside to leave the school. They said they prevented other journalists from entering the school in order to protect students’ privacy and safety. Berkeleyside’s legal counsel and lawyers with the First Amendment Coalition agreed, however, that California’s Education Code allows reporters to enter campuses and cover events unless their presence disrupts educational activities, and that it is illegal for schools or districts to deny them access. Berkeleyside is protesting the district’s requirement, and we will cover BUSD’s response.

Berkeleyside left campus at the district’s insistence, and returned to the area to cover the events at the park across the street.

Students formed a long line along the stage to take turns at the mic. About 300 of their classmates sat on the grass, quietly listening to them and intermittently erupting in cheers, as the sun beat overhead. Most were dressed in bright red.

“I lost my voice, and that pisses me off. I want to fucking scream,” said one male speaker.

“I’m a survivor,” said a female student. “I don’t talk about it much. It should be something we can talk about and discuss and change. I’m so happy people are actually caring and giving a shit about what’s happening.”

“All the abusers you know were once all children — think about that,” said another speaker. “I think that we should change that some people grow up thinking this is okay.”

Students left class after first period to protest. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

A table was set up where students could grab bottles of water, or submit ideas for “demands” to bring to the district headquarters Tuesday. Some students have threatened to “sit out” of school until something dramatic changes.

Others say they hope these planned events prompt what is bound to be a difficult and ongoing reckoning.

“The intention of the organizers was to create a space where people felt safe to share their emotions and experiences, where the audience was receptive and respectful, overall so that the community can move forward an make the changes need to end rape culture at BHS,” said student Arev Walker in a text message. “Personally, I feel so inspired by what I saw this morning and continue to see from my peers. The walkout was not the final action against these issues, but the beginning of a revolution at BHS. It may take years for the culture to shift, but today started a conversation that must continue.”

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Natalie Orenstein

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,...