When Jasmina Viteskic started as the Title IX coordinator at Berkeley Unified in November 2021, she took the helm of one of the most heavily scrutinized offices in the school district, responsible for investigating complaints of sexual misconduct and gender-based violence and discrimination.
Since 2014, the Title IX office had not been able to hold down a coordinator for more than a year, and the Berkeley school district has faced mounting criticism in the form of massive walkouts by students claiming the high school enabled a rape culture; three ongoing investigations by the federal Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights; and multiple high-profile lawsuits claiming the district failed to protect students and staff from sexual harm, including in the case of a BHS chemistry teacher who was allowed to stay in his classroom for 15 years as generations of students filed misconduct complaints against him.
More than a year into Viteskic’s tenure, she has earned the trust of student leaders calling for change. They praise her empathetic approach and willingness to act on what she hears during her twice-weekly office hours.
Among the improvements implemented by Viteskic: two half-day trainings for all administrators before students came back on campus in the fall; posters explaining how to report sexual harm in every classroom; and a new job posting for a Student Support Counselor dedicated to supporting students going through the Title IX reporting process, a rare position even in colleges. All were the product of ideas introduced by BHS students and staff.
With many other changes still in progress, student leaders say they feel a shift.
Ava Murakami, a senior at BHS and the student commissioner of women’s rights and equity, said she is confident Viteskic is leading the Title IX office in a positive direction.
“She was a next step in creating a safer district, honestly,” said Elise Nudel, a senior and president of BHS Stop Harassing, a student group that formed in 2014.
Still, gaps remain. Openings for new and existing positions have remained vacant for months, and there are delays in resolving Title IX investigations.
Last year, a teacher hired to run consent education for sports teams to preventatively address harassment quit after a few months, and the district has yet to hire a replacement. Now, there is a unit on consent for all ninth graders and a one-day lesson on the topic in the middle school curriculum. Aside from that, consent is taught by volunteer peers from student groups like BHS Stop Harassing and Green Dot.
The Title IX counselor job, a role requiring a particular combination of skills, has also remained open for months. Same goes for the Title IX investigator, who left in the fall. (BUSD relies on outside contractors, including a previous interim Title IX coordinator, Megan Farrell, for more complex cases.) In the spring, a BHS counselor will temporarily fill the support counselor role while the school district looks for a permanent hire.
Viteskic said the applicant pool for these positions has been small, and that BUSD is still waiting for the right candidates to send in their resumes.
The district has also delayed implementing an anonymous reporting hotline that would have allowed students to file informal complaints without identifying themselves.
Despite Viteskic’s best efforts, complaints have piled up. When school let out last June, there were 18 pending complaints (only one was a Title IX case), many of which had come in the last two weeks of school. As of Wednesday, there were three unresolved complaints from the last school year.
Viteskic said the delays are due to the sheer number of complaints — 127 total last semester, formal and informal, including 10 complaints of sexual assault and sexual battery. So far, BHS is on track to see the same number this year, a load Viteskic describes as “huge” but manageable. “I’m not crying in my office,” she said with a laugh.
Genevieve Mage — a Berkeley High teacher who pushed administrators to investigate her colleague Matthew Bissell after finding a photo of him inappropriately hugging a student in an old yearbook — said change is moving too slowly.
“I think there’s been a lot of good faith word choice. The attitude is there. I have yet to see any action,” Mage said.
Despite sitting on two committees designed to advise the district on how it handles sexual harm, Murakami said she feels she has been in the dark about the district’s hiring process for vacancies. “As a student, I don’t want to be pleading for answers,” Murakami said. Without a firm sense of what’s going on, she has found it difficult to support other students as women’s rights and equity commissioner.
Viteskic says her goal is to make Berkeley Unified a leader in K-12 Title IX.
But whether her good intentions and the improvements she has initiated will create long-term change beyond her tenure remains to be seen.
“We’ve heard our kids, over and over again, describe … how the lack of appropriate response was, at times, probably more hurtful than the events themselves,” Viteskic said. “I’m cautiously optimistic that we are better prepared to address it.”
Trying to make the Title IX process less painful
When a student is sexually harassed or assaulted, the Title IX process is their primary means for recourse. The product of federal civil rights legislation passed in 1972, Title IX has been a powerful tool to fight gender-based discrimination for 50 years. In the ’90s, it became more common to rely on Title IX to address cases of sexual harm.
But the process can be bureaucratic and painful, requiring that students recount their assault in detail. In the past, Berkeley students have described the process as at best a black box and at worst retraumatizing.
The office is currently staffed with three people: Viteskic, who splits her time between investigations and working with students directly; an administrative assistant; and, now, an interim student support counselor whose job is to “sit on my side of the room,” as Murakami put it. There are also the outside investigators BUSD calls on, and, when the role is filled, there will be a Title IX investigator, too.
(Even though the office isn’t fully staffed now, Viteskic said that Berkeley has a lot of support for a district of its size. In other districts, coordinators are often forced to juggle multiple responsibilities, doubling as academic deans or vice principals.)
If a student has been assaulted, they can file a complaint with the Title IX office. An investigation follows and, in the end, Viteskic makes a determination.
But the cases the Title IX coordinator can adjudicate remain limited by federal law. In order to issue discipline for sexual misconduct, a Betsy DeVos-era Title IX regulation requires that the harassment be severe, pervasive and objectively offensive. “To meet all three, it is almost impossible,” Viteskic said. Plus, the harm must occur on campus or during a school activity off-campus, like a field trip.
The Women’s Student Union at Berkeley High is currently suing the U.S. Department of Education to strike down changes to the Title IX regulations made by DeVos in 2020.
If a case doesn’t qualify under Title IX, though, students still have other options.
The Title IX office can provide support, like changing a student’s schedule or helping them get counseling. The office can even investigate the case — they just can’t issue discipline. A student can also go through the school’s internal disciplinary process, which is bound by less restrictive California law.
This year, the nuts and bolts of this process remain the same as they have in the past at Berkeley High. But the experience seems much better for students.
- The initial intake process has been standardized, which means students no longer have to retell the same painful story over and over.
- Contracts requiring that students and their alleged assaulters don’t come in contact with one another, called “No contact orders,” are now commonplace and swiftly implemented.
- There is an emphasis on supportive measures, which can range from creative plans to help students avoid each other in the hallways to counseling referrals and academic support. They can be issued even if a complaint doesn’t qualify under Title IX.
“Let’s figure out how we can provide a similar sort of solution that’s going to make you feel safe while it’s still legal to do this as a public school,” Viteskic said. Instructions for a safety plan can be as specific as which entrance students should use to enter and exit a building: “You take C2, you take C1, and then no one sees each other.”
(The Title IX coordinator can’t require the accused person to make a change to their class schedule while an investigation is still ongoing, but what she can do is ask whether they would like to volunteer to change their class.)
- Record-keeping in the Title IX office, which had been criticized by former Title IX coordinator Mardi Walters, has improved, though the ability to search historical complaints remains limited.
During the pandemic, former coordinator Stephen Jimenez-Robb scanned paper records dating back to 2016 and uploaded them to Google Drive folders. In 2021, the district purchased a new database called Guardian for tracking complaints, allowing people to search for individuals with repeat complaints against them and providing an organizational system for the investigations in progress.
There is also change occurring at the district level.
This fall, the school board passed a policy, called “Maintaining Appropriate Adult-Student Interactions.” Nicknamed the “boundary policy,” it is intended to make explicit to teachers and staff behavior that is inappropriate even if it doesn’t fall under the purview of Title IX.
The policy lists examples of behaviors teachers should avoid, like initiating physical contact with students, singling them out with personal attention and socializing with them outside of school. Viteskic led two trainings for Berkeley High and Berkeley Technology Academy teachers and staff on the policy.
The two student campus leaders on sexual harm were not aware of the policy. Viteskic said she is planning to raise awareness about it in the future.
To make BUSD the model district Viteskic wants it to be, BUSD first has to fill the job openings in office and continue to institutionalize recent changes.
“If you are one person,” Viteskic said, “you can be the most wonderful person in the entire world, but if a student goes to a teacher and that teacher doesn’t know how to react …”. That’s why Viteskic aims “to be an advocate for trauma-informed procedures and policies, as well as giving all the staff the tools they need.”
Consent education tops the list of priorities moving forward. Nudel, the BHS Stop Harassing president, said education on the topic is scant. Last year, the school hired a consultant to lead some consent education assemblies, which Nudel found ineffective. For the lessons to sink in, she said, students need interactive workshops that repeat every year with engaging, nuanced and increasingly complex content.
Mage agrees that how students think and feel about consent should ultimately be the focus, and school districts should prioritize teaching collaborative consent, centered on pleasure and care for other people.
“I hope that if kids were getting that kind of training, we would be having to spend less time on a punitive system, on threat and fear,” Mage said.
Students say they value Viteskic’s empathetic approach
Viteskic has a grizzled, sunny kind of humor that comes from a Bosnian upbringing and eight years of human rights work. She immigrated to the United States at age 10 and attended UC Berkeley, studying how victims of war crimes were treated during tribunals. “I’m Bosnian. Everything has to be intense,” she said with a laugh.
Prior to taking the job as Title IX coordinator at BHS, Viteskic worked with survivors of sexual and gender-based violence in Bosnia. There, she faced an uphill battle: Many Bosnians, she said, still think physical abuse is a normal part of married life, or something private in which others should not intervene. By contrast, she sees almost a universal consensus at Berkeley High that sexual harm is a problem.
While human rights work in Eastern Europe and a progressive California high school are drastically different, she brings the same, empathetic approach.
When “someone’s going through something really traumatic, and they’re coming to you, you are their only tool at that moment,” Viteskic said. “That carries with me from Bosnia. I don’t want the people that come to ask for help [to think], ‘I regretted that decision.’ I think that’s the most painful thing.”
When she was hired, at the urging of former Superintendent Brent Stephens, Viteskic posted up at Berkeley High for the first semester of her job, building relationships with students. The result is that, “people know her face. They know that you can go to her to talk to,” Nudel said.
Unfailingly positive, Viteskic has a penchant for cracking jokes about difficult circumstances (“I was very excited to start last November to be valued coordinator number seven hundred,” she quipped at the start of her interview.) In the face of challenges, she focuses on a solution, which seems to always be within reach.
Photos of Viteskic with student groups abound and, in the fall, students collaborated with her to host a Title IX launch day, decorating campus with hundreds of signs explaining how to report sexual assault. In conversations and presentations to the school board, Viteskic repeatedly credits student activists with inspiring progress at BHS.
“We live in a society that is conducive to sexual harm. We cannot shield our kids from the society that we live in,” she said. What we can do, she said, is teach students what their rights are, how to access them and make school as safe a place as possible.
The story has been updated to clarify information around the anonymous hotline, the lesson on consent available to middle schoolers and the Title IX complaints that were rolled over from 2022.