Students walked out of class on the of morning Feb. 10, kicking off two packed days of protests. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

Berkeley High and district leaders have issued written responses to several days of unrest and student protests over campus sexual assault issues and how administrators are handling them.

In the email messages to families, sent Tuesday and Wednesday, Superintendent Brent Stephens and BHS Principal Erin Schweng tried to convey that they’re taking steps to respond to students’ concerns and demands.

“Our whole admin team has spent time listening to students, in large groups and often one on one, and hearing their pain and anger as well as their requests and demands for change,” wrote Schweng on Wednesday. “It has been heartbreaking.”

The principal said her administration supports every item on the list of demands crafted by students, with help from some parent advocates, this week. That list calls for a dedicated Title IX coordinator to handle Berkeley High cases exclusively, more robust training for all staff on handling sexual harm reports, a specific training program for athletic coaches, and consent education for students beginning in sixth grade, among other demands. Many of these programs or staff positions depend on district and board budget decisions.

Throughout the rest of the school year, students will receive additional classroom education on consent, and how to report or intervene in incidents of sexual harm, Schweng said.

With the campus-wide focus on these issues, more students have reported cases of sexual assault or harassment over the week, according to the principal.

“We are following up with every student who has come to speak with us. Students can report to any trusted adult on campus,” she wrote. Attached to the email was a sheet laying out the school’s policy for incident reports; Schweng said the information will be distributed to all classrooms.

“We are bringing in some members of our community that are specifically skilled at working with students to restore the harm that sexual assault has caused,” she added.

This sort of restorative justice work has been both a demand of the students and a target of criticism by those who feel the administration doesn’t do enough to support survivors of sexual abuse or pursue harsh enough consequences for perpetrators. Memes have circulated among students making fun of the administration’s reliance on restorative justice circles. At the same time, the students have demanded two full-time restorative justice counselors for the campus.

Schweng wrote, “This work is not simply about bringing together a student who was harmed and the person who harmed them to talk it out, but rather a deep process to create accountability and begin healing. Those involved can choose whether or not to participate. For students who have asked for this, we want it to happen as soon as possible, starting this week and next.”

BUSD Superintendent Brent Stephens addresses students
Superintendent Brent Stephens directly addresses students on Feb. 11, after they stormed the BUSD offices. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

The superintendent’s email message, addressed to “the Berkeley community,” more pointedly responds to what he calls “perceived inaction” around issues of sexual assault and harassment.

“Our students are raising serious issues in a way that is critical and powerful, and we are listening,” Stephens wrote. “It is important to acknowledge and respond to our students’ feeling that we, the adults who take care of them, have done nothing to support them with this issue. We want students and families to know for a certainty that the high school and the district are active in investigating and addressing concerns from students about harassment and sexual harm.”

He said administrators face a “very challenging dilemma” when they handle a confidential report but, by law, can’t reveal the specific outcome of the case, often leading, he said, to a false perception that BUSD’s done nothing to address an incident. In an interview with Berkeleyside, however, he said he quickly learned after coming to BUSD over the summer that there are too many unresolved cases sitting in the Title IX office. He attributed that to a lack of sufficient staffing in the office.

Stephens wrote to families that the district has already boosted its prevention and response resources over the past few years. Berkeley High now uses Green Dot, a peer education program training students on how to intervene when there are issues around assault. The district has also added investigators to its Title IX office and intervention counselors to Berkeley High, he said. Guidelines on how to report sexual harassment have recently been posted in school bathrooms and locker rooms. Some parents and students had strongly advocated for many of these recent additions.

“Still, the school, district, and community can do more to educate all our young people about healthy relationships, bystander intervention, how to report an incident, and how staff should respond,” the superintendent wrote.

Like Schweng, he noted that the district is looking to bring in more people with counseling expertise to the high school to address recent reports, and to expand student education. In his Tuesday evening message, Stephens said BUSD was still working to identify funding for some of those resources.

During a lengthy, unplanned interaction with students during their protest earlier that day, Stephens also said he intended to pursue some of their requests during the 2020-21 budgeting process, which has just kicked off.

After a period of community and staff input, the superintendent will present his budget recommendations to the Berkeley School Board around the end of June.

The board will get a chance to hear from students before then: the Berkeley High activists plan to present their demands to the officials at the board’s meeting Wednesday.

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,...