Faces of Activism: Students Leading the Movement Against Rape Culture at Berkeley High School

Over the past two weeks, Berkeley High School(BHS) students planned and participated in walk-outs, sit-ins, and school board meetings in protest of campus rape culture, inadequate school support for survivors of sexual harm, and Berkeley Unified School District’s (BUSD) mishandling of sexual assault allegations. Leading up to the actions, a group of students met in classrooms, worked with Principal Erin Schweng, and tried to create long term solutions in order to make sure the movement continues to improve BHS for future classes. The stories of a few of these leaders are highlighted below.

ABBY SANCHEZ – A senior in Berkeley International High School (BIHS), Abby Sanchez believes the difference be- tween this walkout and past BHS walkouts is that “this one is and will be leading to concrete policy change.” She said, “We have a specific list of demands and have had communication with the superintendent and administration as a whole.” Sanchez strongly believes that the walkout was a success, because “the superintendent spoke with [students] and is willing to continue [the] dialogue about what needs to change in [the] school community. But also be- cause [the] school and the community of Berkeley are both aware of this problem of sexual misconduct and want to help.” However, Sanchez was not satisfied with the email statements sent by Principal Erin Schweng and Superintendent Brent Stephens in the wake of the walkout. She said, “The emails from Ms. Schweng and the superintendent were sent in order to appease the Berkeley community. In order to not be villainized by our community, they put out a statement that they’re doing something. But that isn’t enough.” Sanchez said that BHS “can’t be a community that sees sexual relations as conquests. This can come with the implementation of comprehensive con- sent education. We need to be a safe community. I’d like to see a culture that can re- spect someone’s allegation of sexual assault. Before this walkout, it was so common to just brush off someone’s allegation as just a story, but I hope that this change will teach us to truly acknowledge someone’s pain.” Sanchez said that everyone should know, “We will be relentless in our pursuit for equality. We won’t stop fighting until survivors are heard and their safety made a priority.”

EVE WORLEY – Eve Worley, a junior in Academic Choice (AC), said that for the leaders of the walkout, “it wasn’t just two weeks of organizing, it was an accumulation of terrible treatment, and stress and trauma that had been brushed under the rug.” The organizers of the walkout, “came together as a group kind of out of anger,” she said. Worley said that she was personally motivated to participate in planning the walkout after watching “all of [her] female friends at Berkeley High be sexually assaulted, making it impossible for them to focus at school and go through their everyday lives.” She said, “We need the walkout and need education like this so if something does happen to someone that they can recognize it and report it.” She said planning the walkout “is the biggest difference I could make at Berkeley High.” For Worley, the most difficult part of leading the walkout was the fact that “the people who really needed to be listening weren’t there, or were there and left, or weren’t listening, or were listening and patronizing people they assaulted.” Worley, along with the other leaders of the walkout, wants to see better consent education for freshmen. Worley said to Principal Schweng: “you don’t need to dumb down their consent education to this video,” in reference to a three minute video students watch once a year. The video uses forcing someone to drink tea as a metaphor for sexual assault. Worley doesn’t want to see this movement end after the walkout: “We need this to be an ongoing conversation so that the awareness doesn’t just die out and another group of students doesn’t have to do the exact same thing two years later.”

MIA REDMOND – For Mia Redmond, a junior in CAS, the goals of the walkout “originally came out of anger.” She said, “We wanted to bring changes. We wanted admin to listen. We wanted the district to listen.” The week before the walkout, Redmond reported her own sexual assault case to the school. Instead of support, she said, “I was getting so much push back for it. I felt unsafe and I had a lot of anger about it and how I was being treated for report- ing this.” With this recent experience in mind, “the walkout came from a personal place of emotions and anger.” Redmond chose to channel these feelings into improving BHS’s policies surrounding sexual assault: “I could use everything I was feeling to try and make an actual change within the school,” she said. Redmond considered the SPARK assembly with the freshmen to be “barely consent education.” Redmond stated that the short assembly “clearly doesn’t work, [and consent education] should be something that goes for a whole day.” In addition to a list of student demands, Redmond, along with the other leaders, wanted to implement an annual district- wide day of recognition for survivors, marked by consent education and healing activities. Her biggest highlight from the walkout was the hand raise activity, where she read a list of statements about sexual assault and rape culture and invited audience members to raise their hands if the statement applied to them. She said, “seeing everyone raise their hand and raising my hand with them … it felt powerful just seeing everyone else raise theirs and seeing that so many other people have gone through this.”

RUSUMA KHAREL – Rusma Kharel, a junior in Communication Arts and Sciences (CAS), was a member of the planning committee for the walkout. According to Kharel, the idea for the walkout emerged on Tuesday the week before the action in a CAS girls support group. The walkout “started with a small group of girls who were just talking about their experiences,” said Kharel. When spreading the word about the walkout, “in the beginning we didn’t use social media, in order to keep admin out of the walkout, because the goal was to target admin,” she said. Because they avoided posting on social media at first, the organizers spread the news by texting everyone in their contact networks. Kharel considers the goals of the movement to be “[getting] our demands met and [having] the policies and rules be centered around survivors.” She considers the walkout successful because lots of people were able to speak openly about their experiences. Most of Kharel’s friends are survivors, which motivated her to become a leader of the walkout. She said, “hearing them talk about their experiences touched my heart.” In Kharel’s view, organizational issues and “making sure everybody was on the same page” was the biggest challenge in planning the walkout. One of Kharel’s main priorities was “making sure different types of voices represented.” She said, “It’s very important for voices of color and voices who don’t usually get heard or who usually get trampled on by other people to get heard. Me and some of my friends made sure that survivors who were of color were prioritized.” Kharel made this a priority “because I know how hard … it is [for survivors] to talk about [their] experiences and how brave it is for people to do that.”

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