Berkeley High students walked out of class in February 2020 to protest what some called a “rape culture” on campus. File photo: Natalie Orenstein

A Berkeley High student’s testimony at Wednesday’s school board meeting — in which she claimed school administrators botched the handling of her 2019 report of being sexually assaulted multiple times a week by two football players — has ramped up pressure on the district to repair what students at the meeting described as a climate of mistrust surrounding its system for processing and addressing complaints of sexual harm.   

“I’m complaining because you have created an environment where no person in their right mind would tell their friend to report something to you, because it will increase the harm rather than support them,” Loren McErlane, now a senior, told the school board Oct. 6. McErlane gave Berkeleyside permission to use her full name in the story.

McErlane said that when she tried to report her assault in 2019, she was shuffled from school staffer to school administrator, with no one informing her of her rights or following up with her afterward. When she tried to report being assaulted again by one of the football players her sophomore year, she said it took days for the administrator to find the yellow pad on which she had taken notes about McErlane’s original complaint. She said the administrator then accused the wrong student of assaulting McErlane, a mistake that caused McErlane to be taunted by her peers. She said the student who assaulted her during her sophomore year was suspended.

(Superintendent Stephens said BUSD would look into the complaint. Neither the school board members nor the superintendent commented on specific allegations made by McErlane during the meeting.) 

District leaders say that progress has been made since 2019, pointing to the hiring of a Title IX investigator for the high school and two new consent education teachers, additional Title IX training for staff, and a review of the Title IX office’s procedures and record-keeping, among other changes. “[S]purred by courageous student protests before the pandemic, BUSD has redoubled our efforts to prevent sexual harm on our campuses,” Superintendent Brent Stephens wrote in an email to the community last month.

But McErlane and other student activists are not satisfied with the pace of change, arguing that district protocols still don’t keep students safe after they have been assaulted or harassed. McErlane hopes sharing how the district mishandled her sexual assault report will spur the board and district to further action. 

Anjuna Mascarenhas-Swan, the student school board member, called on the board to tackle sexual harassment at BUSD right away, saying that McErlane’s story “illuminat[ed] the district’s failure to ensure student safety surrounding sexual harm, specifically at Berkeley High.”   

“In my opinion, the fact that the board has yet to have any formal discussion surrounding sexual harm this year is irresponsible,” Mascarenhas-Swan said, asking to move a discussion on the topic scheduled for Nov. 3 to Oct. 20. School board directors Babitt and Sinai supported Mascarenhas-Swan’s request, and School Board President Ty Alper said that he, Superintendent Brent Stephens and Vice President Ka’Dijah Brown would discuss the agendas for the upcoming school board meetings.

Since student walkouts shook the campus in February 2020 and a former Title IX coordinator resigned in frustration, Berkeley Unified has taken numerous steps to improve student and staff education around sexual harm, as well its reporting process, many of which stem from a list of demands presented by students during the 2020 walkouts. 

Within a year, the district had hired a Title IX investigator for the high school, Mary Keating (who currently also handles the district’s Public Records Act requests) and set up a committee made up of mostly high school students to work on sexual harm prevention.

A consent education teacher, Gabe Lopez, who the district has contracted to run a program called Coaching Boys into Men, started work at Berkeley High last week. The district is in the process of hiring a consent education teacher, Shafia Zaloom, who will provide workshops for high school students and staff. The district is also implementing an anonymous tip line for sexual harassment, bullying, and discrimination, according to an agenda item on the Oct. 6 school board meeting.

The district has also digitized its Title IX records, Superintendent Stephens announced in a Sept. 14 email. The email was sent six days after Berkeleyside published a story detailing Walters’ frustrations with the Title IX process in 2019-20. In a subsequent email to students, Berkeley High Principal Juan Raygoza shared that the district is “reviewing” a new Title IX database and restarting meetings with the student committee on sexual harassment prevention. 

Berkeleyside has made multiple attempts to learn the name of the database or how the files were digitized, including whether they are organized or searchable. BUSD has declined to answer questions requesting this information.

Now, Mascarenhas-Swan wants to see a comprehensive report in November of what the district has done, and hasn’t. 

Unmet demands from the student walkouts include a sexual misconduct crisis center at Berkeley High. In the same vein, at Wednesday’s school board meeting, Abby Lamoreaux, student commissioner of women’s rights and equity, asked for a social worker specially trained in trauma-informed practices.

Student director Mascrenhas-Swan also asked the district to implement remaining recommendations made by former Title IX coordinator Mardi Walters at the time of her resignation in February 2020, such as writing a clear disciplinary process for dismissing students and employees.

Parent Heidi Goldstein, who has been pushing the district to make changes since 2015, said the upcoming developments are a step in the right direction, but the situation feels too dire for step-by-step change.

“This is like the fire department saying, ‘We will be ready to fight fires next Tuesday, when your house is burning down today,’” Goldstein said during public comment.

Progress, but still no ‘better way to solve this issue’

School board members and district leaders listen at a school board meeting Oct. 6 as McErlane recounts her story. (The student’s face has been removed).

McErlane’s story struck a chord with school board directors and public commenters alike, many of whom expressed gratitude to McErlane for her bravery in sharing her story publicly.

School board director Julie Sinai apologized that the district has not “succeeded with having the kind of cultural and systems change at Berkeley High yet.” 

“I’m sorry that not only did you have this experience at Berkeley High, but that you continue to have to talk and give testimony,” said Sinai, a sentiment echoed by Brown, Babitt, and Ana Vasudeo. Like Mascarenas-Swan, Babitt said she wanted more information about sexual harm at BUSD, including “demographic information to assess racial disproportionality.” 

“We’re talking about safety in regard to vaccinations. But so many students have been harmed throughout the history of our district. And it’s disappointing that the district has still not found a better way to solve this issue,” Sam Kaplan-Pettus, chair of the youth commission, said during public comment.

McErlane says that her bad experience is one of many examples of the district mishandling sexual harassment and assault that persists today. It’s a claim that student advocates say reflects their experience, too. Emmy Sampson, the president of BHS Stop Harassing, Ava Nemith, the president of the Women’s Student Union, and Lamoreaux began meeting with administrators this fall in an attempt to address these issues. 

Superintendent Brent Stephens thanked the students for speaking and said he takes the complaints seriously. “The concerns you’re bringing forward will both be looked into as individual concerns but [we also] look forward to the patterns that may exist that continue to impact students as they come forward to report instances of harm,” he said.

The district is currently facing two lawsuits alleging that it mishandled cases of sexual assault. In February 2020, a student filed a suit alleging that the BUSD administrators did not put in place a safety plan to protect her after an assault and attempted rape. This summer, a former Berkeley High student filed a lawsuit alleging that the school district knew that former teacher Matthew Bissell sexually assaulted her and covered it up. An investigation by the school district found that former and current Berkeley High students experienced inappropriate conduct at the hands of the teacher, who is now no longer employed at BUSD. 

At the board meeting, Stephens emphasized the district has made “small accomplishments” in how it handles sexual harassment, as well as in other aspects of student life. “There are many, many people throughout the district who continue to labor day in and day out, and are producing small accomplishments.” Stephens said that many have “frustrating feelings that come with the pace of change, and the scope of the desire among the community for change.”

McErlane’s story

At the board meeting, McErlane described the process of trying to report the alleged assaults as disorganized, traumatizing, and ineffective, claiming that the district never followed-up on the report from her freshman year.

McErlane said that she was sexually assaulted on a nearly daily basis by two boys on the football team during her freshman year, and that one assaulted her again during her sophomore year. After a video documenting the sophomore year assault identified the boy, he was suspended. 

On the day she tried to report in 2019, during her freshman year, McErlane said she spoke with four adults before anyone said they were sorry or asked if she needed anything. Instead, she said she was sent to the health center, which turned her away since she could not report there, to an administrator who started crying when she heard McErlane’s story, and to another administrator who she said tried to recruit her for the cheerleading team while McErlane was recounting her assault. 

McErlane said no one explained that she could make a report with the Title IX office, or wrote a safety plan to protect her. After making her report, McErlane said that no one followed up to inform her of any investigation being conducted into the alleged assaults. 

After the board meeting, McErlane filed what’s called a uniform complaint against the school district for its failure to support her after she was allegedly assaulted. 

Three other students also filed complaints against the school district at the Oct. 6 meeting, claiming that a Berkeley High administrator mishandled a situation surrounding an alleged sexual assault this fall. Lamoreaux shared this story with the school board at a meeting on Sep. 8.

The problem, the students say, lies not within individual administrators, but with a system that lacks sufficient resources to effectively handle cases of sexual harm. 

“We ask again that the BUSD stop harming and creating an environment that pushes students not to report and to tell their friends to not report, because the system assaults them further,” said Lamoreaux.

Correction: A previous version of this article misspelled Shafia Zaloom’s name and mischaracterized her role. She is providing consent education to high school students, not to the entire school district.

Ally Markovich, who covers the school beat for Berkeleyside, is a former high school English teacher. Her work has appeared in The Oaklandside, The New York Times, Huffington Post and Washington Post,...