Berkeley Unified sheds light on plans to improve Title IX office

Changes are coming to the district’s sexual harm reporting process, the result of mounting community pressure to better protect survivors.

Hundreds of Oakland Tech students walked out of class on Friday to call attention to sexual assaults on campus and school leaders' lack of response.
In the last few weeks, protests about how schools are failing to address sexual harm have spread to a number of Bay Area schools. Hundreds of Oakland Tech students walked out of class on Wednesday morning to call attention to sexual assaults on campus and school leaders’ lack of response. Credit: Amir Aziz

Berkeley school officials shared new details Wednesday night about the changes they’re making to the district’s sexual harm reporting process and Title IX office in response to ramped up pressure this fall by student and parent advocates. 

A new case management system for tracking complaints of sexual assault and harassment is coming this winter. A new Title IX coordinator will start at the end of November. The Title IX office will be given a standalone budget line to make the department’s funding more transparent. And community listening sessions are planned for the coming months. 

At multiple school board meetings this year, students and parents have spoken out about times when they say the district botched its response to their complaints. At an Oct. 6 meeting, Loren McErlane, a senior, said she walked away from the reporting process with the impression that “it will increase the harm rather than support” survivors. The district is also facing two lawsuit alleging that it mishandled cases of sexual assault.

In the last few weeks, protests about how schools are failing to address sexual harm have spread to a number of Bay Area schools. Hours before the school board meeting, hundreds of Oakland students walked out of class and marched down Broadway, chanting “keep our rapists out of school; we have tried to keep our cool.” And, similar to walkouts at Berkeley High in February 2020, students at Ruth Asawa School of the Arts in San Francisco have scrawled names of alleged abusers onto bathroom walls, which one BUSD teacher compared to a “vigilante justice system” in lieu of a reporting process that students trusted.

Advocates say the changes described at the Berkeley school board meeting are a sign of progress on its way to fruition at the district. “Of course, I’m glad to see a plan. Clearly something got lit under somebody to, you know, make all this movement happen,” said parent advocate Heidi Goldstein, calling the board meeting update an important step toward transparency and action.

Still, she said, “there’s the plan, and then there’s the execution” — noting that future changes don’t address issues students are facing today. “If the fire department isn’t ready to fight your fire today, we still have concerns.”

What’s new

Referencing the 2020 walkouts, Superintendent Brent Stephens said that “Berkeley is also leading the way” in student activism around sexual harm. “Many of the conversations that we will have very shortly are directly influenced by the calls for change by our own student leaders,” he said.

The district is in the process of buying a new case management system called Guardian, according to Wednesday night’s presentation, and expects to have it running by January. The searchable database will allow the school district to better track all matters reported to the Title IX office and, paired with a new tip-line coming in November, will allow students to make anonymous reports for the first time.

Last year, the Title IX office staff digitized all the paper records it could find and, once the database is in place, it plans to upload the scanned files into the online system. Megan Farrell, the interim Title IX coordinator, said at the meeting that records date back several decades.

The district also announced a start date of Nov. 29 for a new Title IX coordinator. Since the last coordinator resigned in July, the post has been filled by Farrell, who previously worked at Palo Alto Unified as well as in Title IX compliance in higher education. Currently, Farrell works on an as-needed basis as an independent contractor for BUSD, as well as at several other school districts.

The updates shared by the district Wednesday mean that multiple recommendations left behind by former Title IX coordinator Mardi Walters, who quit in frustration in February 2020, are in the process of being implemented. A standalone budget, a reporting hotline, an online database, and staff training are all things Walters had requested upon resigning. 

Another of Walters’ requests, that the district hire a Title IX investigator solely for the high school, was fulfilled in fall 2020 when Mary Keating (who also handles the district’s Public Records Act requests) was hired. 

At an Oct. 6 board meeting, Stephens alluded to these changes as “small accomplishments” in how BUSD handles sexual harassment and 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 acknowledged that the pace and scope of change desired by the community could lead to “frustrating feelings.”

On Wednesday, Farrell sought to explain why some community requests have not been met. In response to student complaints that the burden should be on the alleged abusers to change classes after harm has occurred, Farrell said that Title IX law states that individuals cannot be disciplined before the completion of an investigation.

Under Title IX regulations rolled back by Betsy DeVos, today’s students have more limited federal protections than they did during the Obama years. For instance, under current regulations, the district is only required to investigate sexual harassment that is both severe and pervasive, though Farrell said BUSD’s Title IX office does investigate complaints that don’t meet the more stringent criteria. Sexual harm that occurs off campus and does not have a connection to a school event is also no longer protected under federal Title IX rules.

For these reasons, the Berkeley High Women’s Student Union has filed a lawsuit against the US Department of Education based on members’ experience at the school. The suit seeks to again expand Title IX protections for students across the country.

In a list of demands presented during the 2020 walkouts, students also asked for a K-12 consent education and a sexual misconduct crisis center. While such a center has not been created, consent education has expanded at Berkeley High this year.

This fall, BUSD hired Shafia Zaloom to run workshops and assemblies on consent education for high schoolers and Gabriel Lopez to teach a consent education curriculum to Berkeley High student athletes. Both their contracts are approved for one year.

Lopez, who is running a program called “Berkeley Athletics Consent and Empowerment,” said the goal is for almost all student-athletes, regardless of gender, to attend his workshops and Q&A sessions. Because Lopez, who students call Coach Gabriel, started about a month ago, he is currently only working with the football and volleyball teams, though the plan is to bring the work to all sports teams going forward.

In the program, Lopez teaches students to critique toxic masculinity, rape culture, and hyper sexualization and reframe the way students understand consent. “We change consent from something won to a process of giving and receiving,” Lopez explained.

Hasmig Minassian, who runs BUSD’s Universal Ninth Grade program, also provided details about the consent curriculum.

The consent education work is an attempt to change the culture around sexual harm at Berkeley High to mitigate the amount of harassment and assault that occurs in the first place. But “just because we teach it, it doesn’t mean they know how to use it in the moment,” Minassian cautioned. 

While the vast majority of students walked away from the consent unit feeling confident they could teach consent to others, one of the biggest challenges with consent education is making sure those lessons translate into social interactions.

“It’s hard to teach students these values once they’re already 14 or 15 years old,” said student director Anjuna Mascarenhas-Swan, making a case for age-appropriate consent education for all BUSD students, starting in kindergarten.

The meeting is the second of two school board meetings addressing the district’s handling of sexual harm. 

Two weeks earlier, Dean of Students Claudia Gonzales provided information about a peer consent education team, which ran presentations in classes last year, and outlined her plans for the Sexual Harassment Advisory Committee. The group, which consists of students and staff, formed in December 2020 with the goal of improving the school’s culture around sexual harm. The members provide feedback on consent education workshops for students and staff, and gave input on the hiring of consent educators this year.

The Title IX office will report to the school board on a quarterly basis, according to Farrell, providing further updates on its progress.

Correction: A previous version of this story gave the wrong start date for the new Title IX coordinator. Their job will begin on Nov. 29.

Ally Markovich covers education for Berkeleyside. Email: ally@berkeleyside.org. Twitter: allymarkovich.