Berkeley High School’s (BHS) February 2020 walkouts against sexual assault sparked school and district-wide conversations about rape culture on campus — conversations that have continued despite the school closure due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
In mid-July, a group of self-identified upperclassmen created an Instagram account, @bhsprotectors, to “call out perpetrators and give survivors a safe space to share their stories,” and to educate students about terminology used to discuss sexual harm.
The account currently has 3,668 followers and 177 posts, which are mainly survivors’ personal stories, but also include some informative posts about sexual harm, including one that begins, “You inflicted harm, what can you do next?” Each personal story is given a color-coded trigger warning label.
“BHS Protectors account has banded together the students of Berkeley High in a very powerful way,” said Ultraviolet Schneider-Dwyer, a BHS senior. “It has brought incredible attention and awareness to the immensely prevalent culture of rape and sexual assault in our community. More importantly, it is continuing the conversation.”
Many students leave comments such as, “I hear you and I support you” and, “My heart is with you!” but other comment sections have more controversial remarks, including some from accused students. The owners of the account, who asked to remain anonymous, said they have received mostly positive feedback about the account.
“The negative feedback mostly came from those who were accused (including their friends and family),” said the account owners. “They often come from a defensive standpoint about being named, or claiming they didn’t do what they were accused of.”
In those situations, the owners said they would send a reply suggesting that the person reflect on their past experiences and consider how their actions could have been perceived differently by the other party involved.
The biggest challenge the account has faced was figuring out a way to share the names of alleged perpetrators without worrying about legal action. Originally, the posts included full names and Instagram usernames of the accused, but, after threats of lawsuits, the posts now include only first names and grade levels. However, some students continue to identify full names or Instagram handles of the accused students in the comment section.
Shortly after this account was started, another account surfaced, called @bhsmensprotectors. According to the owners of @bhsprotectors, which is not gender-specific, the retaliatory account had the phrase “Exposing all the liars of rape acusations” in its account description. The @bhsmensprotectors account was shut down in a matter of days, although it is unclear if the account was removed by Instagram or deleted by its creators.
Schneider-Dwyer said she anticipated retaliation from “enablers and apologists of accused friends and of rape in general,” and said that the account has distinguished students that are choosing to stay silent on the issue from those who are owning up to their mistakes.
“Because the majority of the BHS community is on social media and knows about this account,” Schneider-Dwyer said, “the ones who continue to stay silent and/or publicly defend themselves or their friends without any sense of compassion or understanding speaks volumes to the masses of the student body, and won’t be forgotten either. It has made it very clear who stands with survivors and who doesn’t, to say the least.”
Not all students agree with using this Instagram account as a way to pursue justice for assault survivors. Some students have expressed that using the platform of Instagram makes it too easy to make and publicize false accusations.
A BHS senior who asked to remain anonymous said, “Although it’s vital for sexual assault survivors to have their voices heard and change implemented, Instagram is way too casual a platform for such sensitive information to be shared. Because it’s on social media and being posted in such large quantities, the message gets watered down and it ends up trivializing these super traumatic incidents.”
On August 5, the @bhsprotectors account posted a series of Instagram stories asking their followers to send a pre-written email to BHS staff and administrators. The email said that the BHS administration was trying to take the account down and asked that the school make significant changes to policies and listen to the stories being shared on the account.
“There’s been a rumor that the district or the high school administration was attempting to remove the instagram account, and just to share it clearly: there’s been no effort by the district or the high school administrative team to remove that account,” said Berkeley Unified School District (BUSD) Superintendent Brent Stephens.
Stephens said that BUSD tried to reach out to every student that they could identify to allow them to report their experiences, but this process has proven to be difficult because all stories are submitted anonymously.
Further, Stephens added that school districts cannot discipline students in response to allegations of events that took place off campus, but they can address the impact on the victim through counseling and programs like Green Dot and Coaching Boys Into Men.