Opinion: BUSD still doesn’t understand its obligations to address sexual harassment and assault

The superintendent or the school board must build the Title IX infrastructure to make campuses safe for all students, a parent writes.

On Sept. 14, BUSD Superintendent Brent Stephens sent an email addressed to the “BUSD Community,” with the subject line:  Sexual Harassment/Sexual Assault Prevention in BUSD.  Several people shared it with me, wanting to know my thoughts about the superintendent’s commentary regarding “factual inaccuracies” in a recent Berkeleyside article about Title IX Coordinator Dr. Mardi Walters’ decision to quit after six months in the role. They asked if the progress made toward sexual harassment and sexual assault prevention at BUSD, as represented by Stephens, was accurate. Several also shared the private written responses they had sent to the superintendent about his message sharing their concerns about the state of the district’s capabilities.

I believe that the superintendent’s message was put forward largely as a defensive measure, perhaps because BUSD is currently facing at least two lawsuits and a U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights (OCR) investigation (not BUSD’s first) that collectively span nearly two decades of bad practices when it comes to their response to protecting students after incidents of sexual harm. The rebuttal nature of the message exhibits not only a lack of integrity in its half-truth representations of progress but, more importantly, a profound misunderstanding of BUSD’s obligation to build an effective and equitable apparatus that ensures a safe learning environment for students while their incidents of sexual harassment or assault are investigated, adjudicated or remediated.  

Some facts that the district doesn’t choose to share can shed light on the nature of the problems they face in meeting their obligation to address these issues: 

  • The Title IX coordinator leads the district’s prevention and response to sexual harm and discrimination. The role that has turned over 11 times since 2014, encompassing five external hires and six interim (contract or internal staff) assignments. The district is currently recruiting to hire their 12th Title IX coordinator.
  • The last two Title IX coordinators each quit about six months after they were hired. The short tenure bespeaks stressors from sustained under-investment and weak organizational support, both of which Dr. Walters cited as contributing to her decision to resign. 
  • High turnover has resulted in discontinuity and flawed support for students who now hesitate to report incidents because they don’t know whom to trust or who can protect them from retaliation after they seek help with an incident.  Meanwhile, families routinely experience long delays in securing information on how the district will handle their complaints and keep their students safe.  
  • Securing real-time information or assistance from the Title IX Office in an urgent situation was impossible this school year until Sept. 21 because the unattended crisis line went to a full voicemail box, unable to take messages. 
  • BUSD’s practice is to distribute confidential inquiries or reports of sexual harassment or assault made to the Title IX office via email to three different employees, none of whom are the Title IX Coordinator.  The absence of confidential reporting has had a chilling effect on students who wish to report incidents.  
  • Multiple proposals have been submitted to the superintendent to formalize the district-wide sexual harassment advisory committee (now known as the SHAC), originally required by a 2012 settlement agreement to the Lilah R. sexual harassment federal lawsuit. The most recent proposal, submitted in February 2021, has been sidelined since April due to “other priorities,” according to the superintendent. 
  • BUSD lacks a comprehensive program for mandatory student training on conduct and practices to address incidents of sexual harassment or how to get assistance. A “student support” flyer distributed to BHS students on Sept. 22 omitted any contact information for the Title IX Office.
  • The extent of student training on topics related to consent and sexual harm has been limited to the 9th grade at BHS until spring 2021 when a 30 minute peer-led presentation was developed for students in grades 10-12 at BHS.  Because the California Educational Code contemplates that sexual harassment can be prepetrated by students starting in the 4th grade, clearly differentiated training is needed to match the developmental level of students as they mature from age 9 to18.

After nearly 17 months of hybrid or remote learning due to the COVID pandemic, students returned to school in mid-August — and all the problematic dynamics of in-person interactions returned with them. Students have already reported instances of sexual harassment to peers in the student group BHS Stop Harassing.  For incoming 9th graders, some of these incidents hark back to their last unresolved in-person encounters with their harassers in early 2020. 

Overall student mental health is fragile and many are off to a shaky start, easily derailed by incidents where they feel unsupported and vulnerable. These times call for solid measures to ensure that elementary, middle and high school students have the support they need to both feel safe and be safe at school in the wake of sexual harm. In his message, the superintendent contemplates “Teaching our young people about healthier relationships and mutual respect is a community-wide effort …” This is but a small subset of the full breadth of programs and protections BUSD must provide to students because, every year, there are multiple incidents of sexual harm at BUSD schools that must be effectively and equitably addressed.  Today our district is ill-prepared to do this. 

If our superintendent is unable to execute on the full scope of these obligations then our school board must engage and provide detailed guidance for immediate investments in building the Title IX infrastructure to achieve the district’s stated goals of making campuses safe for all students and ensuring that real help is readily available to any student who needs it.  They would do well to consider Dr. Walters’ recommendations to achieve this end.

Heidi Goldstein is the parent of two BUSD graduates and has been a member of the BUSD Sexual Harassment Advisory Committee since 2014. She is a founding adult adviser to the student grassroots organization BHS Stop Harassing and the board chair of the national nonprofit Stop Sexual Assault in Schools (ssais.org). You can hear her recent podcast on sexual violence in K-12 public schools at https://anchor.fm/preventionisnow/episodes/Prevention-Is-Now---Sexual-Violence-In-Our-Schools-K-12-e16npsj