Opinion: BUSD must overhaul how it responds to sexual assault

Students have grown frustrated with BUSD’s lack of focus, insufficient investment and limited capacity to handle incidents of student-on-student sexual misconduct. 

The first week of February saw significant student turmoil at Berkeley High School, precipitated by several issues related to the Berkeley Unified School District’s (BUSD) years-long failure to adequately address issues of sexual harassment and assault. The most visible manifestations of the unrest included multiple instances of graffiti around the school naming “Boys to Watch Out 4” —  a listing of known student harassers and assailants, much like the “Shitty Media Men” list that came out during the #MeToo movement.

Highly visible around the BHS campus during the Feb. 6 back-to-school night were posted flyers entitled “BERKELEY HIGH STUDENTS DEMANDS:” which included 10 specific demands for changes in the ways BUSD handles cases of sexual misconduct. Other flyers posted around campus that evening included statistics and facts about the prevalence of sexual harassment and assault.

This same week also included media coverage of a recently filed lawsuit against BUSD over its handling of a student’s reported on-campus assault in May 2019 as well as public performances of a student-written show called “Our Monologues” which featured original narratives about the challenges students face around gender, race, sexuality and identity.

There is a common theme to the confluence of these events: students have grown frustrated with BUSD’s lack of focus, insufficient investment and extremely limited capacity to handle incidents of student-on-student sexual misconduct.  They are angry over the district’s inability to keep targets of harassment safe from physical intimidation and the social retaliation of their peers at school after they reach out for help. They are dismayed by the perfunctory “restorative justice” remediation processes applied to their circumstances as “resolution,” and they are appalled at the absence of consequences or discipline processes to discourage perpetrators from such behaviors.  Now, the students are demanding the district change its approach.

Since 2014, when I started working on sexual misconduct issues as a member of the BUSD Sexual Harassment Advisory Committee, and as an adult advisor to the student grassroots advocacy organization, BHS Stop Harassing, there has been little headway or sustained change to improve these dynamics. Incidents occur in grades K-12 every year; students are hurt and distracting social retaliation across the student population is rampant. Parents are bewildered as to how to help their children and receive limited guidance from the district in navigating its processes. Every year, some students leave the district because the response to their incident is poor, and supports for success at school are insufficient. Some families sue BUSD and win reparations. Most students just tolerate the abuse and don’t report it or reach out for help because they have seen how others before them have suffered from inadequate protections and poor process when they sought help.

It is time to re-examine why BUSD is unable to create a safer, harassment-free environment for K-12 students, why it has yet to develop a robust curriculum to educate K-12 students about the issues, and why it is unable to effectively handle the misconduct issues when they arise. I believe the answer to these questions can be found in the sustained lack of investment BUSD has made in organizational and programmatic support since it was compelled, in late 2014, to admit that it did not have even the most basic infrastructure in place to comply with Title IX and other educational equity laws.

The students at BHS have put out the call for dialogue. Their demands list is the blueprint for the conversation. This week they will hold a series of walkouts and workshops with their peers to refine their asks of the district to improve their learning environment, meaningful access to safety after an incident occurs, and robust, balanced processes for resolution and justice. No one knows better than they what is working and what is not. District leadership would do well to follow the advice that educators often give to failing students: engage in frank discussions, fact-finding and self-evaluation to understand why they aren’t delivering to the standard. Make a corrective plan, and make a declaration of your intentions to execute on it so others may hold you accountable.  The district owes nothing less to the students and families it exists to serve.

Heidi Goldstein has served on the BUSD Sexual Harassment Advisory Committee since 2014 and is a founding adult advisor to BHS Stop Harassing. She is the parent of two BUSD/BHS graduates.