Hundreds of students march to BUSD’s central office to demand changes to how the district handles sexual assault issues. Photo: Natalie Orenstein
Hundreds of students march to BUSD’s central office to demand changes to how the district handles sexual assault issues. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

“I believe you,” Berkeley Unified Superintendent Brent Stephens told legions of students, who’d crowded into a district room Tuesday to say sexual assault is prevalent at Berkeley High and administrators don’t do enough to stop it.

The extraordinary face-to-face between top district executives and high schoolers followed a raucous march that morning, where teenagers chanted, screamed and stomped through the streets of Berkeley and the hallways of the BUSD headquarters. It was day two of student-organized protests against what they describe as a culture and administration that enables sexual assault and harassment.

On Monday students also walked out of class and held something akin to a group therapy session in the park across from their school, with girls and boys taking turns sharing stories of traumatic incidents.

Tuesday’s event began in the streets outside Berkeley High around 8:30 a.m.

Hundreds of students assembled, some with musical instruments and others with protest signs, before taking off to the district offices at 2020 Bonar St.

Organizers thought, “what if we just had a march?” said student Abby Sanchez, 17. “We should go down there and be in their faces.”

The idea was to deliver a preliminary list of demands, crafted by a smaller group of students and parent advocates the night before, to district leaders. The items, some of which mirror requests made by parents recently, ranged from a dedicated Title IX coordinator to deal with sexual harm complaints at Berkeley High, to a specific training program for sports coaches to foster respect among athletes, to consent education beginning in sixth grade.

Superintendent Brent Stephens faces hundreds of high schoolers demanding dramatic action. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

“We also want there to be a training that every single staff member goes through. A lot of teachers, we feel, don’t really know what to do in these cases,” said Ayisha Friedman, 17, the lead organizer of the march. She said her peers will get a chance to tweak the list before they officially present it to the School Board next week.

Later, the superintendent would agree with them that changes should be made to the Title IX office and related curriculum.

Tuesday’s fast-paced tramp up Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and down University drew honks from passing cars. Tenants poked their head out of apartment windows and a woman held up a silent peace sign as the teens marched by. Students chanted, “Consent is sexy,” “My body, my choice,” and, “Hear us loud, hear us clear, rape culture’s not welcome here.” Printed-out signs declaring “Enough” were pinned to backpacks.

This is the Berkeley High students’ draft list of demands. They’re about to march to the district office to present it.— Berkeleyside (@berkeleyside) February 11, 2020

Berkeley police sped ahead of the marchers to clear the streets.

“We’re just here to support the kids,” said BPD Officer Ethell Wilson, a former Berkeley High school resource officer. “Our job is to make sure all the babies are safe.”

Once they arrived at the district headquarters, students ran through all three floors of the building. At first there was some confusion about what, exactly, they were there to do and whether they should confront staff or not.

Eventually they crossed paths with the superintendent, who together with student leaders drew the crowd into the School Board meeting room on Addison Street.

A student protester addresses a crowd in the Berkeley School Board meeting room. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

During a remarkable 30-minute session, Stephens addressed the students directly and, along with his cabinet, listened to the high schoolers explaining what they wanted. The room, packed with teenagers, stayed silent when someone was speaking but broke into thunderous applause afterward.

“I know why you’re here,” Stephens said. “I’ve been aware of the sheer need for support at the high school.”

A group of girls took the seats usually occupied by district staff presenters during board meetings.

They took turns reading their demands and explaining, pointedly but emotionally, why they cared.

“There are so many students every day who need someone to talk to,” said one girl. The students argued for both more restorative justice staff and more coordinators in the Title IX office, to investigate and handle the formal complaints that come in.

Sanchez told Stephens that his staff must work to “create a culture that no longer only protects rapists but heals survivors.”

Students listen silently as Superintendent Brent Stephens speaks with them and asks them to share their thoughts. He says “I’ve been aware of the sheer need for support at the high school. I know why you’re here.”— Berkeleyside (@berkeleyside) February 11, 2020

Other students brought up issues of what happens to students who are accused of assault and those who are victims of it, asking for schedule changes for the former and excused absences for the latter.

“We understand that the excusing of classes is a pretty big demand,” said one girl. “But it will only have a positive effect on their academics in the future.”

(The student walkouts this week were treated as regular absences, according to the district. Students were marked absent unless their parents called in to excuse them.)

Stephens told students he will be pushing for some of the resources they want during the upcoming budgeting process for 2020-21.

As students filed back to the park for a “healing circle,” Stephens told Berkeleyside that students had identified real structural needs within BUSD.

As Stephens started his job over the summer, he did an exit interview with the outgoing Title IX coordinator and “became aware of the number of open cases.” For years advocates have complained about how long it can take for anything to happen after someone files a report about an assault or bullying issue.

“I’ve been watching pretty closely at complaints coming through that office,” Stephens said. “Within a month I was convinced the volume couldn’t be handled by a single officer.” He said he brought in two investigators this year, but students are right to ask for more staff and training. (Meanwhile yet another Title IX coordinator has resigned, after less than a year.)

“I also hear students saying it doesn’t feel clear who they can report to,” Stephens said. “That feels problematic to me that a student wouldn’t have clarity that any adult is someone they can go to.”

At one point Tuesday morning, hundreds of students packed the district headquarter hallways. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

Some students are threatening to strike from school for as long as it takes their demands to be met. The superintendent said some of the changes will need to be accomplished step by step, and he hopes students will understand that.

But, he said, he’s been impressed by “the effectiveness of the students’ advocacy, the clarity of their analysis of the problems, their ability to make sense of the system. They operate in a highly sophisticated way to do this work.”

Berkeley High walkouts are also a familiar sight: in recent years kids have left class for protests around climate change, school shootings, the election of President Donald Trump and Black Lives Matter.

This week, organizers implored the district not to lump the current events in with the general tradition of activism. 

“Although Berkeley High is known for its somewhat frequent walkouts, this is not the same thing and we don’t want the same results,” a student told Stephens. “Don’t expect this to be the last time you hear from us.”

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,...