At 10:50 AM on Monday, February 10, hundreds of Berkeley High School (BHS) students gathered in the courtyard wearing red and holding signs with messages such as “Consent is sexy” and “Enough,” starting the first phase of a two-day walkout against rape culture and sexual assault at BHS.
The week before, a list of “boys to watch out 4,” aiming to warn girls about “rapists” and other “sus” students, appeared on a BHS bathroom stall. In addition, Berkeleyside published an article detailing a lawsuit against Berkeley Unified School District (BUSD) that alleged a sexual assault case was mishandled, which circulated quickly on social media — students felt tense and overwhelmed. Some teachers held community circles so students could share their feelings. However, for many students, holding classroom discussions was not enough. Sophia Kerievsky, a junior who helped organize the walkout, said, “If you’re in class, it’s easy to tune out of a conversation, to disrespect someone, or say something that you wouldn’t say to an entire school. At a walkout, you are either in your classroom hearing everyone outside or you are actually there, hearing these stories. It is super powerful.”
A group of 15 female students planned the walkout, and the sit-in succeeding the protest was primarily organized by senior Ayisha Friedman. The group also created a list of seven demands to be presented to BUSD, including hiring a full time Title IX officer for BHS and implementing appropriate consent training for students and staff. The students were intent on having little to no influence from the administration to emphasize the student-led aspects of the protest.
Friedman and the other organizers wanted to show the administration that the student body stands in solidarity with survivors of sexual assault. “We are here for them because the school hasn’t [been] for so long,” Friedman stated.
Friedman said that she received anonymous calls from groups of boys after she announced she was planning the sit-in. “I [was] living in a state of caution more than I already do,” she said. While the organization process was not without challenges, Friedman said she is grateful for the support. “I’ve been really overwhelmed, but a lot of people have been reaching out and wanting to help, that’s a great feeling. Everyone at Berkeley High should feel my same rage and pain,” Friedman added.
On Monday, hundreds of supporters flooded the courtyard as students made speeches and shared their experiences with assault. About an hour later, Friedman announced there were reporters outside who were not being allowed in to school to record the walkout. The crowd then moved to Civic Center Park, across the street from the BHS campus. Until approximately 4 PM, student speakers shared emotional stories, often through tears. For some students, this was the first time they had ever spoken out about their trauma, and many students mentioned how they didn’t come prepared to speak. Others said they could see their assaulter in the crowd, “pretending that they care,” as one student stated.
Eliza Fosket-Hydes, a junior who helped organize the walkout, shared her story publicly for the first time. “It made me angry that the school hadn’t given [students] a place to tell their story and feel heard,” she said. “It was one of the first times I had spoken about my experiences. It was really hard, but once I did it I felt a lot better. It was really amazing that we provided a place for other people to share their stories.”
For some male students, this was a time to simply listen to people’s experiences. Junior Kai Speirs participated in the walkout. “As a guy listening to so many people share their stories, [it] was eye-opening to see the true scale of the issue,” said Speirs. “Listening also made me reflect on all the things that contribute to rape and misogynistic culture and how it is my responsibility to hold friends accountable,” he added.
BHS administration was present during the walkout and the sit-in. BHS Principal Erin Schweng said, “I think getting attention for a really important cause sometimes requires a disruptive action, and this is a really important cause. Having students pushing for those things in such a loud and clear way is going to help them come more quickly, but it is important to me that students know that our admin team has been advocating for some of those things for some time.”
On Tuesday, February 11, the walkout continued. At the start of second period students marched down University Avenue to the BUSD offices on Bonar Street. Once inside the building, students chanted “Hey-hey! Ho-ho! Rape culture has got to go!” and hung posters on the walls. BUSD Superintendent Brent Stephens agreed to meet with the students. For the next 30 minutes, a group of organizers presented the list of demands to Dr. Stephens, who stood listening. At the end, Stephens said, “I believe what you’re saying. … Please know that above everything … I have been touched on a human level by everything I’ve heard today.” He then outlined the processes that would follow, including reviewing the district budget and drafting potential policies. “I’m going to try to make this process as transparent as possible,” he stated.
Fosket-Hydes was satisfied with Dr. Stephens’ initial reaction. She said, “I think it was a good response. It really seemed like he knew it was a problem and wanted change. I don’t think he was aware of all of these issues until recently, and I think that he definitely wants to work with us and make changes at our school.”
Since the walkout, tension at BHS has quelled. However, on February 19, students presented their demands to the Berkeley School Board, the committee responsible for making major budget decisions. It’s evident that BHS students will continue to fight for change.