Op-ed: Sexual harassment at Berkeley High must stop

On the evening of Nov. 12 we sent an invitation to each member of the Berkeley School Board and to members of the leadership team of the Superintendent’s office at the Berkeley Unified School District, asking them to support a fundraising initiative for a student-led organization called #BHSstopharassing.

The students of #BHSstopharassing are planning an educational “teach-in” event for later this month to build community awareness about sexual harassment at Berkeley High School and about students’ rights under Title IX law. Most people know Title IX requires public schools, which receive federal funding, to equally apply resources to sports teams for boys and girls. But its protections extend much further to require such institutions to ensure a safe learning environment, free from discrimination based on sex and free from sexual harassment and violence.

There is certainly a need for this kind of education at Berkeley High, because there are some big problems at Berkeley High when it comes to sexual harassment. Consider a few recent events:

  • In late October nearly a dozen students (all juniors and seniors) were suspended for several days for, among other things, maintaining a “slut page” on a social media site [a slut page pairs images of female classmates with lewd commentary of a sexual nature about the young women]. Such slut pages have long been openly tolerated at Berkeley High. Although rumors are rampant, the school administration has not communicated with the student body about this situation in any fashion and has forbidden teachers to discuss the topic of sexual harassment in their classrooms.
  • At a series of back-to-school assemblies held in mid-September, which were attended by over 3,000 students over the course of six presentation periods, a school administrator’s presentation on the District Sexual Harassment policy linked harassment to female students’ adherence — or not — to a dress code. Despite student and faculty outcry afterwards this unfortunate and misinformed linkage has yet to be addressed or corrected by the school administration.
  • This academic year, students, mostly female, continue to scramble for transfer out of the class of a certain science teacher – with a reputation as a known harasser of female students – to avoid the instructor’s ongoing inappropriate and unwelcome comments that belittle their ability to focus on and learn the class material. Those unlucky students unable to secure a transfer must weigh the likelihood of retaliation if they challenge his behavior, versus tolerating the bad behavior and enduring the hostile learning environment in his classroom. Some students have taken matters into their own hands and have asked sympathetic teachers to join them in confronting the science teacher about his behavior.
  • This academic year, students, again mostly female, seek reassignment from the guidance counselor who is required, by the settlement of a sexual harassment lawsuit, to keep his office door open and his window shades up at when he is seeing students, except under certain limited circumstances. At Berkeley High, the guidance counselors are the identified first-level contacts for students who are experiencing problems such as sexual harassment.

These are not only big problems at Berkeley High when it comes to sexual harassment. These are big problems that continue to go unaddressed by the school administration and cause harm to students every day at Berkeley High. These are problems that impede student education and directly violate the protections afforded to students through Title IX law. It is exactly these types of problems about which #BHSstopharassing seeks to raise awareness so that students, their families and the larger community can understand that there are more proactive and effective ways to avoid incidents and situations like those described; and that the school and Berkeley Unified School District is obliged to implement better solutions instead of overlooking or condoning unacceptable behaviors, as they do today.

It is somewhere on the spectrum between ironic, courageous and tragic that #BHSstopharassing has asked for monetary support from the officials that are responsible for ensuring the safety of their educational environment in order to educate students and others about the obligations that these same officials are not adequately fulfilling. Perhaps the front row seats at the “teach-in” should be reserved for the Berkeley school board and BUSD administration – they could learn a thing or two.

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Heidi Goldstein is the parent of two students at Berkeley High School. She is an adult advisor to #BHSstopharassing and can be contacted at hbgoldstein@earthlink.net. Rebecca Levenson is a consultant and nationally recognized expert on domestic violence policy and training. She has two daughters in the Berkeley public schools and is an adult advisor to #BHSstopharassing. She can be contacted at rebecca@rebeccalevenson.com