Berkeley High students allege BUSD refused access to federal investigators over sexual harassment

Students from BHS Stop Harassing put up posters in campus, alleging BUSD has been refusing OCR investigators access to students. Photo: Jaya N.S.
Students from the BHS Stop Harassing group put up posters on campus alleging BUSD has been refusing OCR investigators access to students. Photo: Jaya N.S.

After BUSD officials allegedly refused to let federal investigators interview students about sexual harassment claims at Berkeley High, students plastered posters in campus hallways last month stating, “You are being silenced,” and “Your civil rights are being violated right now.”

Students and parents of the activist group BHS Stop Harassing, who alerted the Office of Civil Rights about alleged sexual harassment at the high school, contend that the school district has obstructed OCR’s efforts to collect materials and speak to students. The district has not turned over requested papers and documentation; refused to allow OCR to distribute an anonymous survey asking about sexual harassment in classrooms; failed to alert students that investigators were there to conduct interviews; and did not send permission slips for those interviews home, according to parents of BHS students. One of the parents was Heidi Goldstein, who filed the complaint to the OCR last December.

BUSD spokesman Mark Coplan denied claims of obstruction and withholding access. The Department of Education, of which the Official of Civil Rights is a sub-agency, declined to comment as the investigation is still ongoing.

“It is a misnomer to claim that students are not being interviewed,” Coplan said. “Until the OCR says there is a problem, I don’t think there is a problem.”


On the week of April 26, OCR investigators came to Berkeley to conduct interviews at the district building in 2020 Bonar St. and at Berkeley High School. Only administrators and staff were interviewed, according to Goldstein. On the morning of April 27, before first period, students placed posters in the halls and in some classrooms at Berkeley High. The posters are still up.

The students took such quick action because Goldstein, who serves as an adult advisor to BHS Stop Harassing, has been in close and constant contact with Ava DeAlmeida-Law, OCR’s primary investigator. Last month, students of BHS Stop Harassing met with three OCR investigators at Goldstein’s house to discuss their experiences.

DeAlmeida-Law told Goldstein that BUSD has challenged every request for documents by the OCR. The school district also rejected several ways to gather larger student input — which included a voluntary, in-class survey — without providing alternatives. According to Goldstein, the OCR plans to issue a second data request to retrieve needed information.

On April 28, a day after the posters went up, BUSD Superintendent Donald Evans and School Board President Judy Appel put out an email through the BHS e-tree, which reaches thousands of parents, saying BUSD has been complying with OCR’s demands. The district has provided more than 1,000 pages of documents, they said. They denied the school district was standing in the way of OCR interviews with students.

Click to enlarge the BUSD email letter regarding its cooperation with OCR investigators.
Click to enlarge the BUSD email letter regarding its cooperation with OCR investigators.

“We believe that it is important that the OCR investigators meet with BHS students to hear their experiences directly,” the letter reads. “Thus, contrary to some reports, we have not barred OCR investigators from access to our students.”

Parents and students who spoke to Berkeleyside rebutted the letter, claiming BUSD did not inform students that investigators were coming to speak to them beforehand, and that it did not provide the means, such as parental permission slips for students that are under the age of 18, to reach out to speak to investigators.

At least four students, including one who has been in email communication with OCR, said they do not know of any students who have been interviewed.

Investigators are not allowed to force any individuals to speak to them, according to Department of Education protocol.

“There are girls that would have loved to talk to these investigators,” said Ondi Lingenfelter, parent of a BHS student. “[The letter] sounded like a posture to deflect any idea they weren’t cooperative.”

During public comments at the May 6 School Board meeting, Goldstein challenged BUSD’s concerns for student privacy and confidentiality, stated in the letter, and asked for a random in-class survey. (Goldstein’s comment starts around the 24:30 mark.)

“Because OCR routinely uses these same methods they presented to BUSD, which are voluntary and anonymous as it concerns student participation, it’s hard to believe that student privacy and confidentiality are really an issue here,” Goldstein said. “BUSD routinely participates in surveys… that are lengthier, more detailed than the short instrument OCR has presented to you.”

The posters have had an impact on the students, according to BHS students. The BHS Stop Harassing website has seen an uptick in visits and feedback left online. Student awareness on campus has also grown since the posters went up.

“Overall, it was a very positive reaction,” said freshman Alecia Harger. “Most teachers were very supportive and left the posters on the walls.”

Several students — both members of BHS Stop Harassing and non-members — reached out to OCR via email to further share their experiences regarding sexual harassment, according to senior Liana Thomason.

As for on-campus interviews, Berkeley High Principal Kristin Glenchur told Berkeleyside by email that no students or teachers were included in the most recent round of interviews earlier this month.

“That does not mean they will not be interviewed in the future,” Glenchur said.

Related:
School Board adopts interim sexual harassment policy (04.10.15)
Feds launch civil-rights investigation in 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)

Support independent local journalism by becoming a Berkeleyside member. Members enjoy many perks, including invitations to member-only events and an annual party.