Feds launch civil rights investigation into Berkeley School District’s response to sexual harassment claims

Berkeley High School. Photo: Lance Knobel
Berkeley High School: at the center of a sexual harassment investigation. Photo: Lance Knobel

The federal Office for Civil Rights has launched an investigation into whether the Berkeley Unified School District inadequately responded to sexual harassment claims at Berkeley High School, thereby creating a “hostile environment on the basis of sex.”

Failure to adequately respond to sexual harassment claims is a federal offense under Title IX, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in any federally funded educational program. The Office for Civil Rights, which is a sub-agency of the Department of Education, opened the investigation after receiving a complaint letter in December from Heidi Goldstein, a parent of two Berkeley High School students. The office’s investigation was launched in late January.

Goldstein also serves as a member of the district’s sexual harassment advisory committee, and as an adult advisor to BHS Stop Harassing, a student group aimed at fighting sexual harassment at Berkeley High School.

The Office of Civil Rights' response to complaints made by Heidi Goldstein
The Office for Civil Rights’ response to complaints made by Heidi Goldstein. Click to enlarge

Goldstein joined the committee last June, shortly after closing a case concerning her daughter, then in the eighth grade, who was inappropriately touched by two boys on her middle-school campus. In mid-November, after five months on the committee, Goldstein submitted a letter to the district illustrating what she saw as the structural problems in its handling of sexual harassment reports.


On Nov. 12, Goldstein and Rebecca Levenson, another BHS parent, wrote an op-ed published on Berkeleyside detailing the sexual harassment problems at Berkeley High School.

Frustrated by what she considered the district’s lack of urgency in moving forward with the letter, Goldstein wrote a letter of complaint to the Office for Civil Rights on Dec. 1. A month and a half later, on Jan. 20, Goldstein heard back from the OCR, notifying her of the new investigation.

“I got a clearer perspective on how the district was treating the issue and I was getting more distressed,” Goldstein said. “The OCR wants to know that you have exhausted your local remedies before coming to them.”

A week after OCR announced it would conduct its investigation, Berkeley High School Principal Kristin Glenchur sent out an email to students’ families with a letter from BUSD Superintendent Donald Evans and School Board President Judy Appel. The letter proposed plans for training, as well as educational programs for students and teachers. Evans has designated Susan Craig, the director of student services, to be the interim Title IX coordinator to handle sexual harassment issues.

Letter from Superintendent Donald Evans and school board president Judy Appel.
Letter from Superintendent Donald Evans and school board president Judy Appel. Click to enlarge

“Based on student, teacher, and community feedback about this and other related issues, we have come to realize that there is an urgent need to work on developing a culture focused on prevention of sexual harassment, not simply reacting to it,” the letter reads.

According to Appel, the letter she and Evans sent out was written in November, long before the OCR came into the picture. It had not been sent out earlier because school officials and the advisory committee, along with other groups, were vetting it.

The current investigation will not be the first time the Office for Civil Rights has investigated BUSD over a sexual harassment case. In December 2010, the OCR looked into the case of a Berkeley High School counselor who was accused of sexually harassing a 16-year old female student. In 2012, the school board approved a settlement which included $57,500 in compensation to the student and required the counselor to keep his office door open and his window shades up when he is seeing students. The district also agreed to create an advisory committee — the one in which Goldstein now sits — to clarify its sexual harassment policies.

Even though the advisory committee was formed three years ago, it has been largely ineffective until recently, according to Goldstein and fellow committee member Peggy Scott. It has only been in the last two months — and after notice of the OCR investigation — that the district has made forming a new sexual harassment policy a priority, they said.

“Now we’re finally in high gear, but what took so long?” said Scott.

The school district has a different explanation of why it has taken so long to adopt a new sexual-harassment policy.

A new set of policies has been under examination since last summer, according to Appel. It was almost ready to present to the school board last May, she said, but then the advisory committee asked for more time to flesh out the policy. In the fall, the policy was further delayed after the California School Board Association came out with new, revised regulations on sexual-harassment policies.

The student leaders of an anti-sexual harassment campaign model the t-shirts they'll distribute on campus. Photo: Brea Kaye
Student leaders of the BHS Stop Harassing campaign model t-shirts they distributed on campus last year. Photo: Brea Kaye

The OCR will now review the new policy draft and recommend whether its adoption be postponed until after the investigation is complete.

“It’s not the OCR that has spurred us to act,” Appel said. “I’m committed to making sure we are both responding to accusations appropriately and creating a culture where sexual harassment is not acceptable.”

Meanwhile, some students recently took the district’s inaction of responding to sexual harassment claims into their own hands.

BHS Stop Harassing was founded last October after an administrator suggested in a Berkeley High School assembly that girls needed to wear appropriate clothing, noting a link between their clothing choices and sexual harassment. The student group has so far raised over $7,000 in fundraising.

During public comments at the Dec. 10 School Board meeting several members of BHS Stop Harassing group provided testimony and presented a petition with more than 700 signatures. (Watch footage of the meeting in the video above.)

“We have seen BUSD aggressively address drugs and racism at school,” Maya Siskine-Lavine, a junior at BHS, said at the board meeting. “We ask you to put that same focus on sexual harassment and violence and create sustained, real education programs at BHS.”

On Jan. 20, Samantha Kuderna-Reeves, a senior at BHS and member of BHS Stop Harassing, testified at a state Senate Judiciary Committee on how schools are complying with Title IX. Kuderna-Reeves, along with 30 students of color at BHS, was displayed on a “slut page” on the social media app Instagram in 2013, she told the committee.

BHS suspended several male students for a different “slut page” on Instagram last October. But, according to Kuderna-Reeves’ testimony, the suspensions were reversed without a public explanation from the administration, and the male students physically and verbally retaliated against the female students who made the complaint.

“That’s a horrifying story,” said Senator Hannah Beth-Jackson, chair of the judiciary committee. “Why aren’t there any enforcements? Why aren’t there any consequences?”

Consequences may come swiftly in the form of a new sexual-harassment policy. The Board Policy Subcommittee is set to have a public meeting on Feb. 11 at 8:30 a.m. in the BUSD building on 2020 Bonar St. to review the policy.

For some, however, this may be too little, too late.

“This is a school district that’s been on notice for a long time that they’ve not been doing a good job,” Goldstein said. “There is real damage being done here.”

Related:
Students target sexual harassment at Berkeley High (11.21.14)
Op-ed: Sexual harassment at Berkeley High must stop (11.17.14)
Berkeley high sexual harassment case close to settling (12.08.11)
Berkeley High harassment case heading to settlement [07.21.11]
BHS sexual harassment case taken to federal court (04.22.11)
Government to assess Berkeley High harassment case (12.07.10)
BHS harassment case settles, leaves open questions (10.29.10)
BUSD decision appealed in BHS harassment case (9.21.10)
Restraining order served on Berkeley High counselor (9.16.10)

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