Berkeley High students walked out of class in February 2020 to protest the school’s “rape culture.” Credit: Natalie Orenstein

The Berkeley school district has struck a deal with a former Berkeley High student who sued the district after she said a male student attempted to rape her in an unsupervised classroom in 2019. She accused the district of failing to protect her before she was assaulted and failing to ensure her safety after she reported what happened.

The settlement agreement requires the district to pay the student $365,000 in damages. The district does not admit to any liability in the agreement.

The lawsuit, filed in January 2020, said an administrator knew the student’s attacker had assaulted at least six other students, but failed to report him (the district denies this). It said administrators failed to secure a classroom known for being a place where students had sex. And it said the school allowed the student’s attacker to continue victimizing and harassing her, to the point that she withdrew from the school. 

Neither the student who sued the district nor her alleged attacker were named in court papers. 

In deciding to settle the lawsuit, the district “tried to balance a range of needs, including staff time, the expenses of litigation, and the cost to other work the district must complete,” Superintendent Brent Stephens wrote in a statement to Berkeleyside. “Settling this case in order to focus further on our ongoing commitment to preventing sexual harassment made the most sense.”

The filing of the lawsuit sparked massive walkouts at Berkeley High in February 2020 over what students described as a lax attitude toward sexual misconduct on campus. Since then, the administration has provided more student and staff consent education and taken steps to improve its reporting process, including installing an anonymous tip line and purchasing a new database for tracking complaints, among other changes. The district’s new Title IX Coordinator, Jasmina Viteskic, has prioritized engaging with students, including reporters for the Berkeley High Jacket.

“These changes needed to happen,” the student who filed the lawsuit told Berkeleyside on Thursday. “I know that people are going to be more protected and that’s all I really ever wanted.”

The settlement provides some resolution to a long and painful journey that began in May 2019 when the student said a male classmate attempted to rape her in a classroom in the A Building at Berkeley High.

In the lawsuit, the student described how her schoolmate pulled her into an unlocked classroom, groped her, threw her on a desk, spread her legs and then “forced himself on her, while groping her breasts, buttocks, and vagina.”  

The student “repeatedly said no and asked him to stop, until she was able to push him away and flee the classroom,” the lawsuit reads.

She said the attempted rape and harassment that followed scarred her. She suffers from PTSD and anxiety, has trouble trusting others and cries herself to sleep some nights.

But she sees the lawsuit and the changes it helped spark as a victory for herself and other young women, including her two younger sisters.  

“I wanted to protect them and make sure that there’s changes happening so that they can have a safe environment to go to school in, and not experience what I experienced,” she said. “And I did this for myself, because I know that at the end of all of this, that I overcame one of the hardest circumstances I’ve ever gone through.” 

The student’s attorney Jayme Walker, of the law firm Gwilliam, Ivary, Chiosso, Cavalli & Brewer, said the settlement was on the “higher range” for payouts in cases of sexual abuse between students. 

The decision to settle, Walker said, was largely a financial one and it was a disappointment that the deal did not include a provision forcing the district to change how it handles sexual assaults on school campuses. “I do think that they made some positive changes and hopefully that trajectory will continue,” Walker said. When a new superintendent is hired, Walker said she hopes “there is something or someone to hold their feet to the fire to make sure they keep implementing these changes.”

“I don’t have the words to describe my pain,” the student said of her experiences in the years that followed the assault. “I was at my lowest. I was like a ghost. I was just moving around. You could feel my presence but you couldn’t feel who I actually was.”

Read the full statement on the settlement from Superintendent Brent Stephens:

The decision to settle a lawsuit is a complicated one – and fortunately one that comes along only rarely. As BUSD looked at this particular case, we tried to balance a range of needs, including staff time, the expenses of litigation, and the cost to other work the district must complete. After consideration, settling this case in order to focus further on our ongoing commitment to preventing sexual harassment made the most sense.

Recent progress towards this commitment includes establishing strong lines of communication between our students and the District’s new Title IX Coordinator, providing students with more access to the Title IX Coordinator while on the Berkeley High School campus, supporting our student-led groups in their work advocating for changes to the district’s response to reports of sexual harassment and harm, and providing Consent Education training across all Berkeley High School grade levels as well as Title IX training for all administrators and educators so they can better understand their responsibilities when sexual harassment and sexual harm reports are made by students.

Other important programs and initiatives, like the Green Dot Ambassadors program, continue to receive ongoing BUSD support. The Board of Education approved a new Sexual Harassment and Gender Equity Committee which will be formed during the spring semester. The District is also working to reach students with relevant and important Title IX information through media they consume. This includes a newly launched Instagram account by the District Civil Rights and Compliance Office and the regular participation of the Title IX Coordinator in interviews with Berkeley High Jacket reporters.

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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,...