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Widespread Engagement is the Solution to BHS Rape Culture

On Tuesday, February 4, a list appeared in marker on a stall door of the G-Building women’s restroom. The door read “Stay Safe Ladies” and proceeded to list the names of six boys at Berkeley High School (BHS) under the headline “Boys to Watch Out 4,” identifying them as either rapists, abusers, or “sus” (implying that they exhibit suspicious behavior). BHS administration was alerted quickly and the list was taken down. The next day, multiple lists popped up in bathrooms around campus with additional names and similar identifications. In one bathroom, phrases like “F*ck girls that don’t support other girls,” and “F*ck staying silent,” covered the walls.

In classes and on social media, students have been having conversations, and often arguments about the validity of the lists. There are many who feel people were falsely accused, and others who disagree or argue in support of the idea of a list, however accurate, strictly for the protection and validation of their peers. The incident has triggered a lot of emotion and has started many important conversations, in addition to a wide range of rumors. 

Outing the boys on the bathroom stall has had a variety of unintended consequences for students. A female student who was sexually assaulted by one of the named boys and prefers to remain anonymous said, “There are better ways to initiate these conversations.” While she presumes the intention of the writer was to protect women from experiencing what she has, she explains that with the name of her perpetrator on that wall she is reliving some of her personal trauma, and she fears it is affecting other victims as it is her. “I’m hearing his name again, people are talking to me about him again, and it’s something that I really wanted to leave in the past, but it’s affecting me,” she said. These lists are forcing conversations to take place publicly that not every victim is ready to confront.

“It’s almost validating to know that he is known that way by some people, but it is scary for me as well because it gives him the chance to once again deny it … and it makes me afraid that he is thinking about me,” said the student.

Centering the conversation on specific names and labels has caused a division among students, not unification over the fight against rape culture. “It turns it into more of a battle than a productive conversation,” the anonymous student said. Conflict is occurring as victims jump to defend their experiences, and accused parties and their friends feel the need to defend themselves. It takes the focus away from the important topics like toxic masculinity and rape culture at BHS and instead puts the spotlight on specific situations and potential misunderstandings. 

“I don’t think that the consequences of [the list] have led to healing and less harm,” said BHS Principal Erin Schweng. She spent much of the day following the creation of the first list meeting with affected students, and she came to the conclusion that seeing the back-and-forth between students at school and on social media is harmful. Public shaming is a dramatic way to bring up this touchy subject, and Schweng warns that “when someone stops doing something because they’re ashamed, it doesn’t necessarily represent a deeper inner change.” Calling students out has produced immediate angry responses that perpetuate the cycle of harm. 

The vandalism in the bathroom, though misguided in execution, was clearly provoked because the victims felt unheard. The system of reporting sexual harm is not working, and it has been dysfunctional for a while. Sexual assault is traumatic. When victims must pass their perpetrator in the hallway, BHS is indirectly forcing them to relive their trauma. The list in the bathroom was an example of students taking matters into their own hands when the system failed them. It is extremely frustrating for students to feel like the administration doesn’t do enough to enforce punishment on perpetrators of sexual harm. However, there are many legal obstacles that keep the school from taking major action. The school has no jurisdiction over events that take place outside of school, or are unrelated to school, unless they are on the way to and from campus. The school cannot legally suspend or expel anyone for an event that happened off campus because there has been no school investigation. Schweng explained that “there are some cases where we use all the options we have and it still doesn’t feel to the person who was harmed like enough was done.” 

To many students, the path towards change seems unclear. Anger at the BHS administration and those in power has led students in the wrong direction. The true solution to this problem is a system that takes into account the experiences of the victims. Ideally, the change would come from the school administration, the government, or another powerful entity. Us students should not have to take matters into our own hands. It is not our responsibility. However, considering the current legal obstacles that our administration faces and the lack of resources available to students, we need to make the change ourselves. The quickest and most effective path is student action. 

As the student body, we need to look inwards at the problems that face us and work to shift student culture. In order to counteract rape culture, there needs to be social consequences for unacceptable behavior. The list has taught us that numerous BHS students are fully aware that their peers have committed sexual assault and have not faced any social rejection or legal consequences. It is within our power to reject the actions of our peers and teach them to be better. The aforementioned anonymous student concluded that as the BHS community, “we have the power to believe each other,” and doing so will move the dialogue forward.

Schweng said, “Change happens when students decide that they want change to happen.” While this is true, we need administrators and district officials to help us facilitate this process. There is a role for this, and it is called a Title IX coordinator. Title IX is a federal law that protects students from discrimination based on gender. A Title IX coordinator holds the job of managing any claims of sexual harm in a public school. The law mandates that every school district has at least one coordinator. Berkeley Unified School District (BUSD) has experienced high turnover in this position with at least three people holding this job in the past three years. This is no surprise considering the workload. It is implausible that one Title IX coordinator would be able to competently manage all of the complaints of sexual harassment and assault from the thousands of students in BUSD. This role is integral to the physical and emotional safety of so many BUSD students, and we need more than one person taking responsibility for these cases which need to be handled with care.

To BUSD and the school board: Make hiring Title IX Coordinators your priority. Too many people have been hurt by their peers, whether it be harassment, assault, abuse, or rape. Do your part in stopping this cycle of hurt. The longer that you wait to take action, the more people will be hurt and continue hurting. This should not be the responsibility of the students. We will try our best to make the change we can within our community, but there is also space for you to take action. The bathroom stall was a clear cry for help. You have a choice: suppress the voices of your students, or take action and improve the system.