For years, Berkeley Unified School District has been under fire for failing to adequately address sexual harassment allegations — facing state and federal investigations, lawsuits and student walkouts. The district’s lax approach toward sexual misconduct, some students believe, perpetuates what they call a “rape culture.”
The Title IX office is the district’s sole mechanism for investigating allegations of sexual misconduct, but students and parent advocates say the underlying problems with the office are so discouraging that students are reluctant to report their complaints at all.
Since 2014, the office has had a revolving door, cycling through at least one Title IX coordinator per year.
In 2019, shortly after an anonymous student filed a lawsuit claiming the district mishandled her attempted rape and student walkouts rocked the campus, the district’s Title IX coordinator, Mardi Walters, resigned after less than six months on the job.
In an interview with Berkeleyside last month, Walters spoke publicly about her resignation for the first time. A career federal compliance officer, Walters painted an alarming portrait of institutional neglect and indifferent leadership at BUSD that hindered her ability to properly investigate allegations of sexual harassment and assault.
She said the district failed to support the Title IX office with funds and staffing, failed to protect student confidentiality, and failed to keep track of historical and current complaints, making it impossible to track repeat harassers. When she asked for the problems to be resolved, she said she was either ignored or met with solutions that felt perfunctory.
“Title IX was considered an ancillary office with no authority whatsoever,” Walters said. “I was appalled.”
In recent years, the district has made progress. The Title IX coordinator used to double as the Assistant Superintendent for Human Resources, a clear conflict of interest, but the roles were separated in 2015. Since Walters’ resignation, the district has hired a Title IX investigator for Berkeley High, made plans to hire a consent education teacher and set aside funds for a program that trains male athletes in consent education. But student and parent advocates say that the problems Walters identified persist.
The district declined to comment for this story, saying it does not comment on Title IX investigations or personnel matters.
The problems observed by Walters are not unique to Berkeley High: Title IX offices are historically underfunded and understaffed, according to Joel Levin, co-founder of a national nonprofit called Stop Sexual Assault in Schools. At the college level, nearly half of coordinators surveyed had been in their job for two years or less, according to a 2018 study.
Walters’ frustrations did not surprise Levin, who said Title IX coordinators often “don’t feel really supported in their role or empowered to do their job.”
And change only happens when districts’ “feet are held to the fire,” Levin said.
The result, student advocates at Berkeley High say, is a feeling that their school does not make protecting survivors of sexual assault a priority.
An office ‘in shambles’
Walters said she knew she’d be fighting an uphill battle the day she started as BUSD’s Title IX coordinator.
“The office that I walked into Sept. 3, 2019, was in shambles,” Walters said.
The Title IX office, she said, had no window blinds to protect student confidentiality as they made complaints, no historical filing system or computer database allowing for the tracking of repeat offenders and not nearly enough resources to process the backlog of 80 complaints — with more coming in weekly.
“It’s party, party, party, all the time, every weekend, and, you know, Monday morning, I would get … complaints from people who were sexually assaulted,” Walters said. “One person can’t do that job.”
For the most part, her attempts to rectify these problems with district leadership either fell on deaf ears or were counterproductive, she said. Despite her requests, blinds were not installed, nor was a tracking database purchased. (The district also declined to comment on whether these changes were made since Walters left in early 2020.)
Superintendent Brent Stephens did add two investigators to her team, but they were retired administrators, one from BUSD and another from San Francisco Unified. Neither were trained in Title IX, and Walters found their reports to be overly concerned with liability and biased in favor of the district. One investigator improved with training, but Walters stopped assigning the former BUSD administrator complaints to investigate altogether.
In an effort to protect students, Walters said she began taking more aggressive action. She issued what she called no-contact orders, a step up from the safety plans the school typically assigned. She also transferred one student to another school in the district and another student to Oakland Unified. She told a principal to put a teacher on paid leave while he was being investigated.
In each case, she said, she was met with resistance from a different administrator.
“My feeling was that that was a rarity,” Walters said. She was left with the impression that district leadership tended to be more “pro district than pro student,” and that the coordinators before her either could not or did not stand up to the “institutional bullies.” Berkeleyside reached out to multiple former Title IX coordinators, who either did not respond to requests for comment or declined to be interviewed.
Once, Walters said, she tried to move a student who said she was being regularly sexually harassed during class to a new school within the district. Walters said the principal of the new school verbally attacked her. When Walters issued a no-contact order, one administrator pushed back, advocating for a less severe measure. (This administrator quickly came to see the value in the no-contact orders when he found them effective, Walters said.)
Walters said she wanted to join the superintendent’s cabinet to have a say in decision making, especially about where funds will go. She also asked that the head of human resources, who handled all complaints involving teachers and staff, at least consult with her before making final decisions. (Stephens did not respond to Berkeleyside’s multiple requests for comment.)
Neither of these requests were granted, Walters said.
Walters said that, for the most part, Superintendent Stephens ignored her requests for changes at the school rather than fighting them. Any outright resistance she faced from administrators was isolated to one-off incidents, she said.
The hardest part of her job was trying to keep up with a steady stream of complaints and do justice to the investigations in an atmosphere of appalling recordkeeping.
In lieu of a Title IX database, records were maintained in a long Google doc created in 2018. Before 2018, records were stored in old boxes in the office that contained some file folders and loose papers. If there was an organizational system, Walters could not make sense of it. She found complaints lying in the boxes, but no evidence of an investigation or a resolution.
“When you get a new complaint, you look the individual up in your database and you determine whether there are historical complaints about this individual. You can’t do that if you don’t have a database in the first place,” Walters said.
The district still does not have a database, according to student advocates who have met with administrators on the topic and Heidi Goldstein, a parent advocate who sits on the district’s Sexual Harassment Advisory Committee.
On Tuesday, almost two months after Berkeleyside filed its first Public Records Act request for records relating to Bissell’s misconduct, the district responded that it could locate only one record of a student complaint. Berkeleyside interviewed seven students who say they have made written statements about Bissell’s inappropriate behavior.
Walters worried that she could not maintain the confidentiality of the victims who came through her office. The staff at student services had a key to the Title IX office, she said, and barged in regularly to access the student files stored there – including while she was interviewing teens about sexual misconduct.
After Walters registered multiple complaints, the files were moved out of the office months later, she said.
Without the administrators’ support, Walters said the Title IX office could not effectively respond to sexual harassment in Berkeley schools. “I think that leadership at the top has failed miserably to support that office and anybody working in that role,” Walters said.
The decision to leave
Pushing for changes but seeing little progress, Walters began to doubt whether it would be possible to properly do her job at BUSD. The 12-hour days caught up to her. When she returned from the 2019 holiday break, she had decided to quit.
The Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights opened an investigation at Berkeley Unified on Jan. 2, 2020. Walters announced her resignation eight days later. While she claims not to have known about the investigation when she decided to resign, she said it had seemed inevitable to her that the office would be audited. They would discover the lack of record-keeping, the files stored in boxes. Walters said she was afraid of being held responsible for a mess that she’d inherited but had found impossible to rectify.
Walters, who has masters and doctoral degrees in federal regulatory compliance and previously worked on Clery Act compliance at the University of Southern California, said she found leaving Berkeley High students “heartbreaking.”
“The students really needed help. At BHS, they really, really did. The environment was allowed to be untenable for them,” Walters said.
At Stephens’ request, Walters stayed another two months before leaving Feb. 28. During those two months, Walters saw the campus get turned upside down over allegations of sexual misconduct and district inaction.
On Jan. 31, 2020, a female student filed a lawsuit alleging that the district failed to protect her after she was sexually assaulted on campus, allowing the student to continue harassing her. Names of “boys to watch out 4” were scrawled on a bathroom stall door and two days of marches and walk-outs that February included a confrontation with Stephens. What Walters said she’d seen firsthand, she now heard chanted: Berkeley High students were not protected.
“The Enough movement revealed what was lying underneath BUSD – a historical neglect of Title IX,” Walters said.
After students walked out of class, Walters was moved. She handed the superintendent a list of recommendations to improve the functioning of the Title IX office and campus culture around sexual misconduct. The list included mandating bystander training for staff, purchasing a database for Title IX complaints, establishing a reporting hotline, and writing a clear disciplinary process for dismissing both students or employees.
If Stephens would agree to implement the changes, Walters would stay on, she offered. She said Stephens declined.
The office has seen a number of interim coordinators since. In July 2021, Walters’ successor as Title IX coordinator, Stephen Jimenez-Robb, quit after a semester in the role. Previously, he’d worked in the Title IX office at Los Angeles Unified for 11 years, two of them as coordinator. Megan Farrell, a consultant with a track record of success in Palo Alto schools, is the current interim coordinator.
The pressure brought a few changes to the campus – a full-time investigator at the high school, more training for staff and students, a consent education teacher – but students and parent advocates pushing for change say their view of the system remains largely unchanged.
“There’s a real clear way you can tell if you’re making progress on this. And that is, watch the budget,” said parent advocate Goldstein. She said budget priorities have largely gone elsewhere.
“It’s all about liability, it’s not about support,” said Abby Lamoreaux, the student commissioner of women’s rights and equity at BHS. Together with Ava Nemeth, the president of the Women’s Student Union and Emmy Sampson, the president of Berkeley High Stop Harassing, the students have been meeting with administrators to continue to push for change.
Walters is not optimistic. “I have a bad feeling about what the future holds for them,” she said.