Schools

BHS sexual harassment case taken to federal court

The family of a senior Berkeley High student is suing BHS counselor Anthony Smith for sexual harassment in federal court after it found the school district’s response to their earlier complaints to be unsatisfactory.

The lawsuit, filed in federal district court in San Francisco on Monday, also names Berkeley schools Superintendent William Huyett and the district. It states that Lilah R (a fictitious name used to protect the student’s identity) “was subjected to severe and pervasive sexual harassment, but has been unable to secure adequate preventative or remedial measures to protect her or other students”.

The family sought a restraining order against Smith last September after an investigation by the school district, following the family’s charge of sexual harassment, found that the counselor was guilty of unprofessional behavior, not harassment. BUSD said it would take appropriate disciplinary action without specifying what that would be. Meanwhile Smith is still working as a counselor at the school.

Michael Sorgen, the student’s attorney, said the action has been taken in order to find out what the district’s modus operandi is when it comes to protecting students’ wellbeing against harassment. “The parents tried for a long time to work this out,” he said. “An investigation by the school found that the student was a more credible witness than the staff member. Yet any action they have taken does not include suspending the counselor or implementing protective safeguards for young women.”


Sorgen added that the suit, which includes unspecified monetary damages, was not about financial gain. “We hope to settle, but this is not about money. Lilah is graduating this year. She is not doing this for her own benefit. The family wants to take care of this for the benefit of all children.”

BUSD spokesperson Mark Coplan said he could not comment on the case as it was a personnel and legal matter.

In its statements on the case last year, the district said it was limited in what actions it could take by union regulations. “…We must comply with the collective bargaining agreement between the District and Berkeley Federation of Teachers (the teachers’ union) which includes restrictions on the ability of the District to transfer teachers,” wrote Delia Ruiz, BUSD’s assistant superintendent for human resources.

Sorgen said he doesn’t believe that the school is constrained by the unions, but that he hoped the facts would come out in the disclosures part of the suit. “It would be unfortunate if unions have such clout with BUSD while parents of students have no way to protect their interests,” he said.

Related:
Government to assess Berkeley High harassment case [12.07.10]
BHS harassment case settles, leaves open questions [10.29.10]
BUSD decision appealed in Berkeley High harassment case [09.21.10]
Restraining order served on Berkeley High Counselor [09.16.10]