In February of the 2019-20 school year, thousands of Berkeley High School (BHS) students walked out of class, standing in solidarity with and listening to survivors of sexual harm. The walkout fit in naturally with rising frustration from large parts of the student body concerning the mishandling of sexual harm cases and the surfacing of more and more stories of sexual harm at BHS. Although the day was meant to consist of student speakers on the steps of the Berkeley Community Theatre, the walkout ended up being hosted across the street at Peace Wall Park where a crowd of students, school administration, and reporters filled the grass. For hours, speaker after speaker got up to tell personal harrowing stories of assault.
One organizer of the walkout, Mia Redmond, a senior in Communication Arts and Sciences (CAS), discussed her role in organizing the walkout, as well as her motives. The idea sprung out of a ‘CAS girls group’ after a shocking realization about the the amount of sexual assault occurrences at BHS. Redmond said, “I think it was just shock and disbelief that so many people have experienced sexual assault.” One thing that stuck out to Redmond was the lack of preventative action. She said, “After a sexual assault there is action, as well, that should be taken. But that is after it has happened and after the harm has been done.” She pointed to sports teams — where toxic masculinity is often plainly visible — as an example of where preventative action could be taken.
That day put BHS under something of a blacklight, pushing problems hiding in plain sight to the forefront. It was no longer possible to ignore the rape culture at BHS. It was also no longer acceptable to have no consequences and offer no preventative solutions. The lack of consequences is especially visible on athletic teams when athletes are allowed to keep participating in events. The power held by sports teams to silence those speaking out against their athletes was undeniably a large cause of the February Walkouts.
Despite this, even at the walkout itself, a group of boys affiliated with a BHS sports team took it upon themselves to wear blue in what could only be described as an act of defiance to the young women speaking, as part of the plan for the walkout was to wear red as a symbol of solidarity for the survivors of sexual harm. For this very reason, one of the demands of the walkout was for the implementation of a program that educated boys on sexual violence at BHS.
Programs like this seek to offer a clear moral picture on how to learn as you grow up and do the right thing with regard to sexual violence, with the intent of cutting the problem at the root. They do this by educating boys, often in an athletic setting.
Berkeley Unified School District (BUSD) is in the process of working to implement this kind of program. The decision to add a third party program like the one demanded in the sexual harm walkout is not left to the school, but to the district, requiring board and superintendent approval. Stephen Jimenez-Robb, BUSD’s Title IX coordinator, explained that necessary action and conversations within the district are taking place in order to install such a program. He said, “The Title IX office is working with the superintendent to purchase a curriculum specifically in regards to male athletes to combat sexual violence.” Information on the specificities of the program are not yet public.
Although he couldn’t discuss details, Jimenez-Robb said, “I can assure you on my end it is going to happen because it is something that needs to happen.”
Until then, it is up to the student body to maintain their demands, but also to understand that a process occurring across a large institution takes time. The walkout in February is an example of student initiative being taken seriously, and the event should stand as inspiration for future protest and redress of grievances.