Op-ed: Berkeley School Board must take action on sexual harassment

By Peggy Scott

Peggy Scott is a former BHS parent, where she represented high-school parents on the school site council and the BSEP P&O Committee. Currently she serves on the BUSD Sexual Harassment Advisory Committee.

In Berkeley, a topic of concern is “disproportionality,” the discrepancy between how often students of color are disciplined compared to their population. One of the greatest deterrents to the school-to-prison pipeline is prevention. Education, training, and a culture of respect lead to a safer school environment, which in turn leads to fewer incidents. Stronger, safer policies coupled with a consistent response to bullying and harassment of any kind, lead to fewer suspensions.

Years ago, the federal government decided that every school district needed a Title IX Coordinator to handle complaints about discrimination (which includes bullying and harassment). School districts that receive federal funding must be in compliance with Title IX. Shockingly, and despite the BUSD’s latest PR campaign touting its achievements, the district continues to be out of compliance with the most basic federal requirements, thus creating a precarious situation for our students, where job #1 should be ensuring their safety.

Back in the spring of 2010 when a certain counselor was temporarily escorted out of Berkeley High under allegations that he sexually harassed a student, parents started asking who was the BUSD Title IX Coordinator, since this role oversees all issues pertaining to incidents involving student sexual harassment. That question was never answered. The case became a lawsuit in federal court, but BUSD still refused to acknowledge the need for a Title IX Coordinator. For some years the district published an employee’s name with that title, but never informed her of that fact nor called her into a case. Last December, shortly after she discovered this, she withdrew, citing a conflict of interest with her job responsibilities. Another employee offered to step in on an interim basis on top of her already full-time job, but her job obligations also entail a conflict of interest. Meanwhile, egregious mishandling of multiple sexual harassment issues at BHS continued. So before 2014 was over, it was clear that BUSD needed to fill this role in a meaningful way.

The Title IX Coordinator role is our government’s very pragmatic attempt to install, inside every school district, a compliance officer to oversee all Title IX (and often including Title VI) issues – in short, all incidents of civil rights discrimination, harassment and bullying involving race, sex, gender, religion, disability and national origin. Although it is mandatory, BUSD has continuously failed to staff this position, leading to a deleterious effect on our students. Complaints have been mishandled or ignored. Investigations, which are mandated by law to be impartial, were carried out by the BUSD’s attorney who worked hard on behalf of her client, the school district, to discredit complainants’ testimonies – hardly an impartial approach.

Since December 2014 many girls testified at school board meetings about harassment, retaliation, and even, in one instance, about a boy who had fully exposed himself.  (See a discussion of that.) One high school girl who reported being maligned in online “slut pages” found herself in a roomful of male security officers and staff investigating her case, asking her, “Is it true? Are you a slut?”

Early last spring the district promised that a Title IX coordinator would be on board by July 1. But no-one even started to write the job description until mid-April. Another director voted against funding the role. Lack of action is emblematic of the school board’s non-response to issues. The position was posted briefly in the summer but the only candidate who qualified to receive an offer turned down the job, and there was no back up. The position remains vacant today.

It is no wonder that Berkeley High School is currently being investigated by the U.S. Dept. of Education’s Office for Civil Rights regarding its response to sexual harassment.

We have seen that bullying and harassment cross all lines and can involve sexual, racial and LGBTQ slurs all in the same sentence. How the district responds is crucial. When no one is in charge or trained to oversee this very real aspect of school life things can get out of hand. “Slut pages,” harassment, even assault have become annual occurrences with little accountability or consequence for perpetrators. BUSD is required to follow clear federal guidelines regarding the oversight and structure of that response. It is very old news that neither trained personnel nor transparent process are in place, and this means our schools are not as safe as they must be.

After 5 1/2 years, the counselor has finally separated from Berkeley High. (If you are curious, see this publicly posted school board packet “closed session.” It’s 2.1.2. OAH Case No. 2015050898).

At this point no one really cares about the school board’s latest excuse for not having the mandatory Title IX Coordinator in place. The role must be filled promptly with a competent independent professional who can fix a very broken system, clean up and clarify the complaint process, conduct prompt and impartial investigations, institute trainings for both students and staff, and teach staff how to appropriately and compassionately receive reports and complaints from traumatized students. Students must be informed that harassment and bullying are illegal and they can get help if something bad happens to them. Finally some information flowed when new high school principal Sam Passarow and Vice Principal Felicia Phillips considerably improved content at the welcome assemblies, explaining and denouncing bullying and harassment for the first time in recent memory. Now, middle schools must follow suit.

The school board professes to care, but action is what counts – meaningful action that improves student life and makes our schools safe places that don’t tolerate hate or harassment. The school board must bring BUSD into alignment with Title IX and make consistent robust investment in programs that have prevention at their core and promote a safe, positive learning environment for all students, whoever they may be.

Hiring a Title IX Coordinator and ensuring the budget for annual staff and student training will go a long way towards achieving this goal.

Related:
BHS Stop Harassing takes campaign to Berkeley council (09.18.15)
BHS anti-harassment student group wins award, celebrates with Patricia Arquette (06.12.15)
School Board adopts interim sexual harassment policy (04.10.15)
Feds launch civil rights investigation into BUSD response to sexual harassment claims (02.10.15)
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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