Two teenage girls hold a hand-drawn banner that says "Enough." Adults sit along a dais above them. In the background is a screen showing another teenager talking at a podium.
Berkeley High students dominated the beginning of Wednesday’s School Board meeting by presenting demands around sexual assault policies. Photo: Natalie Orenstein
Berkeley High students dominated the beginning of Wednesday’s School Board meeting by presenting demands around sexual assault policies. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

High school students delivered a lengthy list of demands around sexual harm policy to the Berkeley School Board on Wednesday, interspersing their presentation with painful and raw accounts of personal experiences with assault.

The issue was not on the agenda for that meeting, but the red-clad student speakers dominated the public comment period and packed the board room. Their written set of demands followed over a week of massive protests and discussions about “rape culture” at Berkeley High and how the school and district should work to prevent and respond to incidents.

Even a School Board member spoke of her own experience with sexual assault, promising along with all her colleagues to take the students’ demands seriously and make changes to BUSD’s practices.

The 12 girls who spoke in succession were somber and scathing in their remarks.

“These are conversations that the School Board should have had generations before me,” said one student. “I imagine my 14-year-old self going into high school with hopes and excitement and as my time at this school went on that has been diminished by the rapists enabled through the system you have created.”

The demands include new staff: a dedicated Title IX coordinator for Berkeley High in addition to the district administrator, and two full-time restorative justice counselors at the school. Students and parents say the Title IX office — which has suffered major turnover including a recent resignation — doesn’t have the capacity to promptly handle the complaints that come in. BUSD added two investigators this year to the office to try to wade through the reports.

According to BUSD data shared with Berkeleyside, 11 complaints have been filed so far in 2020, and nine of the 82 complaints made in 2019 are still pending.

A teenage girl speaks at a podium
Student Isadora De Liberty tells the board to meet monthly with a “student sexual harm advisory committee.” Photo: Natalie Orenstein
Student Isadora De Liberty tells the board to meet monthly with a “student sexual harm advisory committee.” Photo: Natalie Orenstein

Students also want more training for all existing staff on addressing sexual harm issues. Not only do teachers need to know exactly what to do if a student reports an incident to them, the speakers said, but all classrooms should have posters explaining the reporting process to students. (The district says such guidelines were distributed to classes last month.)

“If I knew how to report my experience with sexual assault I would have,” said one of the several girls who talked directly about being raped or harmed by a classmate.

The students also want the district to work with Coaching Boys into Men, a training program for athletic coaches on teaching respect and relationship skills, which was previously proposed by parent advocates.

The students are also calling for more education on consent for themselves and their peers. They’ve criticized what they say is the extent of those lessons for many students currently: a video comparing sex to a cup of tea, explaining to students that they wouldn’t force a friend to drink tea they made if the friend didn’t want it.

Berkeley High already has well-liked peer education programs in place — SHIFT and Green Dot — which students are calling on the district to invest more heavily in. SHIFT is a sexual health education program supported by the city of Berkeley. Green Dot is an “upstander” training program, teaching student leaders how to recognize and safely intervene in issues of assault, harassment and bullying.

Lastly, students make clear in their demands that they want stronger consequences for students not only found guilty of, but also accused of, sexual harm. They ask for immediate schedule changes for the accused, so they’re not in class with the person who made the report, and excused absences and accommodations for survivors of assault.t. They say students who are found guilty should be suspended and removed from any sports teams.

“I had no one to protect my rights as a survivor on a school campus,” said a student, who said her GPA and attendance plummeted after she was raped.

The students want to establish a “sexual harm advisory committee” that would meet with district leaders monthly.

Tons of teenagers, mostly girls, walk in the middle of the streets, some holding protest signs. One has a megaphone.
Berkeley High School students protested in the streets and district offices on Feb. 10 and Feb. 11. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

Berkeley High teacher Angela Coppola spoke at the meeting too, striking as passionate a tone as her students in blasting the “one-size-fits-all” irrelevant training she and her colleagues receive on addressing sexual assault and harassment at schools. She described the helplessness and pain she felt when she was unable to keep a student who reported her assault to the teacher safe and at Berkeley High.

The superintendent and board, which knew ahead of time about the student presentation, did not agree to any of the demands on the spot, but promised students they were already looking into them.

“We have heard you over the course of the last week with an open heart and an open mind. We do not feel defensive,” said Superintendent Brent Stephens. “We know that you’re bringing to us a set of ideas and a set of  suggestions that can make a real difference…We’ve begun work both internally and with the Berkeley High School team to identify resources.” (Shortly before publication Friday, Stephens sent a message to the BUSD community elaborating on the steps he’s taken.)

In a budget presentation later in the meeting, Stephens shared rough calculations of the cost of funding every single one of the demands. He estimated a $341,000 price tag for the resources, including $280,000 for Title IX and restorative justice staff compensation.

These expenses would come during the third consecutive year of significant budget cuts for the district. BUSD will receive less money from the state than it anticipated, and staff is recommending slashing $1 million for 2020-21 and possibly even more the next year.

Board Member Ty Alper said it’s up to him and his colleagues to make sure schools are safe places for students.

“There’s evidence we’ve fallen short in filling that responsibility,” he said. “Certainly in part due to a lack of resources, and in part due to legal constraints, but also, I want to acknowledge, perhaps due to a failure of imagination or perhaps due to a lack of feeling the urgency. That’s difficult to hear, it’s difficult to accept, but I think we have to. The buck certainly stops here.”

In an unusually personal statement, the board’s Beatriz Leyva Cutler told students she herself was sexually assaulted as a young woman.

“I understand the imprint it leaves on your person. It’s still with me, and I’m 64,” she said. “I never told my parents what happened to me, they simply wouldn’t have understood. I’d never want this to happen to somebody. When I hear your stories it brings me back. I never healed from it, and this is what I’d want our schools to focus on — not just the plans and the programs, but how do we create the safe spaces where our students can go to heal.”

She said parents, school staff and administrators alike need to address these issues directly to stop the cycle of harm that has continued through generations.

Board Member Julie Sinai agreed, saying these issues are not new in the Berkeley schools and thanking students for finally “elevating it to a level that our entire community is now aware of.” But she said it shouldn’t be “your job” to do that.

“This is not what our young people should be coming to a School Board meeting about,” she said.

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,...