Berkeley High student recounts to School Board ‘year you chose not to keep me safe’

A relay of Berkeley High students took turns reading Tori Burns’ account of sexual harassment at the Berkeley School Board meeting on Wednesday Feb. 22. Photo: Still from meeting video

Update 9:50 p.m. The school district has provided a response to the public comments at Wednesday’s school board meeting. Berkeleyside contacted BUSD seeking a response after the original story was published.

“Keeping our students safe is our highest priority, and we offer our full support and sympathy to any student who is a victim of sexual harassment and/or retaliation. We would never suggest to any student who fears for his or her safety that we are unable to provide for the student’s safe access to education at Berkeley High, or that it would be best for the student to attend school elsewhere. We will work with students and their families to address all possible options and accommodations to ensure students feel safe, and are safe, at school. The Superintendent will follow up with the family in this case to ensure there is no misunderstanding about the District’s commitment to the safety of our students. Beyond that, we cannot publicly discuss any individual student’s case, even if students and their families choose to exercise their right to discuss their cases publicly.”

Original story, 2 p.m. For the second consecutive meeting, the Berkeley School Board on Wednesday night heard disturbing testimony from a high school student about sexual harassment. Two weeks ago, the board heard from Berkeley High junior Charlotte Wesley about a harassment experience that made her fearful of attending class and led her to enroll in Independent Study.

Wednesday, during public comment, a relay of Berkeley High students read out a statement from 14-year-old Tori Burns, who wrote that she has had to deal with persistent sexual harassment since last spring, when she was an eighth-grader at King Middle School. Burns, in her statement, said she came forward after reading Wesley’s story on Berkeleyside.


Burns had been assured by school officials that there was a safety plan in place to ensure that the boy who had harassed her at King would not be a threat to her at Berkeley High.

“On Sept. 1, I was going into first period walking with my sister and he deliberately tried to run into me,” Burns wrote. “My mom called and complained to [district compliance officer] Bev Bueno and [BHS dean of students] Mr. Rok and they pulled tape from that incident off the school camera.

“On the tape, you could see him seeing me and walking away from me at first, and then turning and moving fast and straight at me and only missing running into me because I moved out of the way. It was totally terrifying. Even Mr. Rok commented on it being really disturbing to watch. I was asked to fill out a form about what happened, and they knew it was wrong and scary and violated the safety plan.

“I filled out the form, but nothing changed.”

Burns’ statement went on to detail continuing incidents without any action by the school. Three weeks ago, “I stopped going to school altogether because I felt suicidal.” (Watch video of the full School Board meeting.)

Burns and her parents contacted Rebecca Levenson, an advisor to BHS Stop Harassing. Levenson went with Burns’ parents to see Superintendent Donald Evans last week.

“He told them,” Burns continued, “the safest thing to do was for me to leave Berkeley High. BUSD chose the boy over me. They valued his right to an education more than mine… This will always be the story of my freshman year, the year you chose not to keep me safe, the year you chose him over me.”

In powerful, tearful testimony, Burns’ mother Cynthia said she’d seen other teenagers “face the same hostile environment as my daughter.”

“If this was your child, would you abandon her, too?” she asked. “Will you let the abuse continue and hide behind empty words? Shame on you.”

Peggy Scott, a member of the BUSD Sexual Harassment Advisory Committee, speaking before the reading of Burns’ statement, said the school district had consistently failed to take necessary actions.

“The board prohibits retaliatory behavior or action against any person who reports files a complaint or testifies about or otherwise supports a complainant in alleging sexual harassment,” Scott said. “You must enforce this. They may not be empty words or you are not doing your job.”

When board members spoke after public comment, there was minimal reference to Burns’ statement.

“I do want to let everyone know that I personally hear the stories,” said Board Member Judy Appel. “We’re not stone walls up here. I hear you.”

“I hear you. We hear you,” echoed director Beatriz Leyva-Cutler. “I know we can do better and I’m committed to that. It doesn’t go unnoticed.”

Board member and student director Petra Silvey read a joint statement from student leadership that called for “effective restorative justice,” and called on the district to “take action to stop history repeating itself.”

Board President Ty Alper, vice-president Josh Daniels and Superintendent Evans made no comment. The lack of specific response is mandated by the Brown Act. It prohibits direct, substantive responses to public comment because that would constitute a public discussion about a non-agendized item.