On May 23, Berkeley Schools Excellence Program (BSEP) approved a proposal for a paid student advocate, a new position in the Berkeley Unified School District (BUSD) Title IX office for the 2022-23 school year. BSEP provides 20 percent of the BUSD funding and accepts new applications every year. The proposal was submitted by Genevieve Mage, the yearbook advisor and World Mythology teacher, on February 28.
The “Student Advocate” position, described in the proposal, would function as a mentor or guide for a student who has submitted a report. According to Mage, their main incentive would be focusing on the students’ overall well-being. Included in the proposal was a request for two .4 Full Time Employee (FTE) student advocate positions, which are each 40 percent of a full-time employee, though BSEP only funded one of the two student advocate positions that were requested.
These proposed positions would work in the title nine office with the direct goal of supporting the student.
“The goal of this new Title IX position was to hire somebody to help deal with the Title IX reports, specifically someone who can work with the students who are submitting these reports and help them navigate the system … [and] essentially be a student advocate,” said Nikola Simon, a BSEP committee member and senior in Berkeley International High School (BIHS).
Inspiration for this new position came from Mages’ own experience handling the Title IX office, as well as the stories shared with her by students, as she noticed the problematic intentions of Title IX officers.
“When you complain to the school … you basically have the student who sits in a room with someone from the Title IX office, usually the investigator, and maybe you have someone from the district themselves,” Mage said. “They are concerned about getting sued and how it’s gonna affect them, and the Title IX office is worried about government compliance … so there’s no adult in that room who is focused on the care of the actual child reporting harm.”
The absence of an adult in the Title IX office who can focus on the emotional and physical well-being of the student has immense consequences, according to Simon.
“When somebody is working in the interest of the district, they are not necessarily trying to help the student emotionally heal, they’re not trying to help the student do what the student feels is best,” Simon said. “They are trying to make sure all their legal bases are covered, and that can be kind of alienating for somebody who experiences something traumatic.”
The student advocate position serves to guide students through their experience with the Title IX office, whether by answering questions or simply explaining the reporting process, according to Mage.
“The goal would be [that] when a kid comes or wants to report, before they report they would go to this Title IX advocate to talk about options,” Mage said. “One of the biggest problems I’ve seen is students either choosing not to file a Title IX report because they look at the process, and they’re like, ‘Absolutely goddamn not,’ or they file a Title IX complaint, unaware of how it’s going to negatively impact them.”
According to Mage, students started to reach out to her in hopes of receiving help with their Title IX reports, unhappy with the way the office had handled them. One such student was Loren McErlane, a senior in Academic Choice (AC), whose experience with the Title IX office confirms this lack of student support.
“It’s easy to slip through the cracks with your reports. If you’re not constantly hounding the office about it, they won’t do anything,” McErlane said. “I will walk into the office and on the whiteboard, there will just be lists of people that are begging to be called out of class or communicated with about their case. … I’m very frustrated and hurt as a student. When they treat cases like mine in this way, it shows that there’s a disregard for the students’ mental health and safety at school.”
Historically, BSEP has rarely provided funding for positions that do not already exist, and the last time they did, it took three years for the position to be finalized, according to Mage. This proposal took several months, though BSEP agreed to fund only half of what the proposal asked for. They have funded one student advocate position in the Title IX office for the next school year, rather than the two that were requested.
Being limited to only one student advocate raises questions of equity, as well as bias, if both sides of the report are working with the same person. Currently, Mage’s most immediate concern is how BUSD plans to fill the position.
“I’m just really desperately hopeful that they pick somebody who is already steeped in the Berkeley community,” Mage said. “If we make this position, and then we fill it with someone who doesn’t have any cultural context, that could do more harm than good, and I just really, really hope that [BUSD] makes better choices.”