In Berkeley Unified School District (BUSD), self-advocacy is continuously emphasized. Whether it is through anti-bullying curricula or history lessons about oppression and social movements, students learn the importance of standing against injustice, being critical of those in power, as well as the power of collaboration and compromise. Thus, it can be incredibly frustrating when students’ voices are not properly considered by administrators in school-wide decisions.
Time and time again, student representatives in Berkeley High School (BHS) leadership see their names tacked onto decisions that they weren’t involved in. On October 21, Principal Juan Raygoza sent out an email disclosing that Spirit Week would be canceled. Krithi de Souza, this year’s senior class president, said, “I was really frustrated when he made the statement that he was working really closely with the student body. As senior class president, I had not heard a single word about [the decision to cancel Spirit Week], and I felt really betrayed by that.”
The absence of communication with student leaders about Spirit Week’s cancelation is only a recent example of a recurring issue. Charlotte Thornton, who was senior class president last year during virtual learning, remembers her proposals repeatedly being shut down by administrators. Thornton planned a drive-in movie night, a senior sunrise, and a Halloween candy drive through, all of which were brought to a halt by admin due to COVID-19 safety reasons. “It’s just really frustrating because it felt like I was planning events and working hard, but no one really saw that because it was behind the scenes … It looked like I didn’t do anything when I was really trying,” said Thornton. Admin’s lack effort into working with Thornton on minimal-exposure activities validated that her plans were unsuccessful because of the hierarchical relationship between the administration and students, not just because of the pandemic.
It’s understandable for administrators like Principal Raygoza to be swamped with different commitments and emergencies, and in Thornton’s examples, administrators’ worries surrounding COVID-19 were reasonable. However, collaborating with student leaders is a vital part of decision-making, especially in an institution that prides itself on empowering students. Administrators having more power isn’t necessarily bad, but in order for students to have proper representation at BHS, there must be mutual respect between the two. Otherwise, the relationship sours: “It will be like the ‘we hate admin’ sort of thing, and that energy is not at all good for school,” said de Souza.
“Institutional betrayal” is a term that was created by psychologist and professor Jennifer Freyd, who defines it as “wrongdoings perpetrated by an institution upon individuals dependent on that institution, including failure to prevent or respond supportively to wrongdoings by individuals committed within the context of the institution.” Institutional betrayal has been apparent at BHS in various contexts, such as the inadequate response to reports of sexual harm. Fortunately, BHS is taking steps to combat this problem, like implementing “Coaching Boys Into Men” in sports teams and holding consent education assemblies.
The Center for Institutional Courage, a nonprofit founded by Freyd, says that the term “institutional courage” is the antidote to institutional betrayal, and is “a pledge to protect and care for those who depend on the institution.” Though BHS is making commendable progress in areas like sexual harm prevention and response, administrators cannot ignore the importance of showing institutional courage in less severe contexts, like in the relationship between student leadership and admin.
Canceling Spirit Week without student input disregarded student voices, and felt like an act of institutional betrayal despite its smaller scale. Director of Student Activities John Villavicencio agreed that collaboration between students and admin is key to easing this tension. “Staff is saying, ‘We want change,’ students are saying ‘We want change, but we still want this [Spirit Week].’ Somewhere in the middle, there’s some kind of compromise and path to working together.”
The decisions made by BHS administrators affect thousands of staff and students, so consulting student leaders, as well as staff members, should be a top priority. The issue is not that student voices are not vocalized; rather, they aren’t currently given adequate opportunity to be heard. It is the job of admin to collaborate with student leaders non-performatively in order to practice institutional courage.