Last spring, hundreds of Berkeley High School (BHS) students walked out of class in protest of campus rape culture and the administration that enabled it. The event featured a diverse group of speakers who shared their stories of sexual assault and harm, often calling the student body and administration to action. By the end of the first few speeches, the listeners were clearly drawn together in a deep and searing empathy; BHS’s community was uniting in support of survivors, beginning the fight against sexual harm that is still happening today.
Following the walkout, student representatives instigated a series of meetings with the administration and the Berkeley Unified School District (BUSD) School Board. The student group brought forward a list of demands, many of which the board agreed to support. The list included appointing a permanent Title IX coordinator exclusively for BHS cases, intense training for staff surrounding the management of sexual harm, a training program designed specifically for athletic staff, and consent education for all BUSD students beginning in sixth grade.
Ella Ashley, a senior in Berkeley International High School (BIHS), is co-president of the BHS Stop Harassing Club and one of the student representatives. Ashley shared, “It was really scary to talk to the Board, but we knew it had to be done.” Ashley explained how she got involved in planning the walkouts, saying, “[I felt] really upset with the Berkeley High community’s handling of sexual harm, and [wanted] to find people who were fighting and demanding change.” During the protests, Ashley recalled looking out on “a sea of red,” the color students wore to show solidarity, and feeling many of her previous frustrations disappear. “It was clear that so many people really cared about changing rape culture at Berkeley High,” she explained.
Following the walkouts and school board meetings, students and administration quickly got to work on a list of demands. However, within the next month, the COVID-19 pandemic hit the Bay Area, and BUSD shut down in-person school. Ashley explained, “With distance learning, there were new priorities for the School Board, and I definitely think that our demands were pushed aside.”
The pandemic also introduced unprecedented challenges to the implementation of many of the demands, because in-person training and education could no longer happen. However, progress was not completely halted; a group of students, brought together by Counselor Jasdeep Malhi and Dean of Students Claudia Gonzalez, have been working on consent education for BHS students. The program, BHS Student Sexual Harassment Advisory Committee (SHAC), will be mostly student-led, with support from an outside group of professional consultants. Ashley, one of the leaders working on the initiative, said, “The curriculum will be tailored to what we as students need.”
Beyond the exciting headway with consent education, BUSD has made notable progress on their other promises to students. In a recent email, BHS Principal Juan Raygoza shared that BUSD has hired a both a Title IX Investigator and a Title IX Coordinator. Mary Keating, the new Title IX Investigator, has been working for several weeks, and Stephen Jimenez-Robb, the new Title IX Coordinator, began work on December 7. According to the BUSD Human Resources Department, Keating is responsible for investigating and resolving Title IX related incidents, including complaints of sexual misconduct, sexual harassment, and gender-related violence. Jimenez-Robb is responsible for managing all the components of Title IX compliance, complaint procedures, and informal complaint resolution. Raygoza said, “I have already started working with Ms. Keating and will do the same with Mr. Jimenez-Robb when he comes onboard. … Our entire BHS Admin Team will do the same.”
Both Keating and Jimenez-Robb have yet to reach out to the general student body. As far as the commitment to providing teacher training regarding sexual harassment and misconduct, school officials have not yet shared any plans.
Although there are many systemic adjustments that need to be made, there is even more that needs to be done on the individual level. BHS’s toxic rape culture is one of the biggest contributors to sexual harm and harassment in the community, and every person must take it upon themselves to fight for justice and safety. Ashley said, “It’s really important that we hold our friends accountable. … Even if it’s just a small comment in class, hold them accountable!”
Rape culture is reinforced by small, every-day actions as much as it is reinforced by large and intense situations. According to leaders like Ashley, students must be responsible for educating themselves, speaking out, speaking up, and supporting their peers. True change can only be made when the community as a whole is dedicated to being active allies.