ADL files complaint against BUSD, alleges acts of antisemitism on district campuses


On Wednesday, Feb. 28, the Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law and the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) filed a federal complaint against Berkeley Unified School District alleging that BUSD has failed to address “severe and persistent” discrimination against Jewish and Israeli students in the months since the Hamas attack against Israel on October 7.

Incidents outlined in the complaint include verbal anti-Semitism from other students,  including chants of “kill the Jews” and comments asking students what their “number” is, a reference to the numbers tattooed on Holocaust victims. The complaint claimed that a BHS history teacher calling Israel an “apartheid state” was a “common anti-Semitic defamation.” The complaint also mentioned several pro-Palestine walkouts calling for a ceasefire occurring at BHS and BUSD middle schools.

In response to the complaint, the group BUSD Jewish Parents for Collective Liberation released a media statement describing their concerns with the federal complaint. The statement said that the ADL complaint “irresponsibly fabricates or exaggerates a majority of incidents described, and needs to be laid bare for what it is: another harassment tactic intended to censor teaching our children about Palestine.” The media statement also described the Brandeis Center as “a national Israel advocacy organization with pro-Trump ties.”

“As a Jewish parent in Berkeley, it’s very upsetting to me that students are getting labeled anti-Semitic, including Arab and Palestinian students, for vocalizing opposition to what I would consider a brutal genocide against the civilian population,” Juliana Fredman, a member of the BUSD Jewish Parents for Collective Liberation, said. “That’s been ongoing for months now, and I think there’s numerous examples in this complaint of that happening.”

Marci Miller, who is part of the Senior Education Council with the Brandeis Center and worked on filing the complaint, said that there were numerous formal complaints filed with the school for individual incidents of anti-Semitism that were not investigated, prompting the complaint. “Every single example we listed in the complaint involves a student and a family that have tried first to work it out with the district formally, and then informally, and were unable to do that,” Miller said.

The complaint also follows a petition written in November by parents of Jewish students, which garnered over 1,300 community signatures. The petition was sent to the superintendent and BUSD Board of Education, urging the district to take action to ensure the physical and psychological safety of their children in Berkeley schools. 

“Law says that school districts cannot discriminate based on gender, or race, or national origin or religion, in their programs (through) policies, rules, and practices,” said Jasmina Viteskic, who runs the district’s Civil Rights and Compliance Office and is the Title IX coordinator. “So, when a student or their family feels that the district is doing something that’s in violation of (these laws), what they can do is they can file a complaint with the Office of Civil Rights.” 

Once the district is formally notified of the complaint, according to Viteskic, which could take around a month, a data request will happen, where the Office of Civil Rights will ask BUSD for data connected to the complaint in order to determine what systematic changes within the district need to be made. 

Benjamin Ross, one of the co-presidents of BHS’s Jewish Student Union, said it was heartbreaking to read the complaint. “The school was not providing enough. They were not doing enough to prevent the hostile environment for Jews,” Ross said. “For a lot (of Jews), we’ve felt that our perspective and our beliefs have not been respected by teachers, by students, and that we haven’t had enough allies.”

The 41-page complaint, which lists multiple instances of peer-on-peer bullying, also points out specific teachers within BUSD for alleged anti-Semitic harassment towards Jewish students. Instances include an art teacher showing his class a picture of a fist holding a Palestinian flag punching through a Star of David and an elementary school teacher doing an activity where she had her students write “messages of anti-hate,” wherein multiple students wrote, “stop bombing babies.” The post-its, according to the complaint, were then put outside the classroom of the only Jewish teacher in the school. However, this allegation was disputed by the elementary school teacher named and others in the school community, who shared that only one student wrote that message and point to the post-its being placed on a shared school ‘No Hate’ bulletin board that happened to be outside the classroom of one of multiple Jewish teachers at the school.

One teacher named in the complaint, who requested anonymity due to safety concerns, said she has been “targeted and harassed” since she hung up a Palestinian flag in her classroom window in November. According to the teacher, a woman unassociated with the teacher’s school photographed the flag then submitted the teacher’s personal information and place of work to a national list of “soliciting harassment”. According to the teacher, this prompted thousands of phone calls, some containing threats, to her school from around the country that demanded the flag be taken down. The teacher said she no longer feels safe since her personal information was released.

“I find these accusations (in the complaint) … a direct attack on my reputation and an attempt to erase the affirmative experience of hundreds of children I’ve taught over the 19 years in this district. To feel discomfort is one thing, but to be in an unsafe situation is another,” the teacher said. “It appears that they scrambled up a lot of lies, different rumors and pieces of real incidents that have happened to different people, edited it, collaged it up, added several fabricated details, pinned targets on certain teachers, then put it all back together like a creative writing piece to counterfeit an entirely different reality.”

BUSD has stated that they will cooperate fully with the Office of Civil Rights. 

“Inherent in any commitment to equity must be a willingness to listen, to reflect, and to work in community,” Superintendent Enikia Ford Morthel said at a school board meeting on March 6th. She added, “As such, we consider an office of civil rights complaint as an opportunity to further examine our practices, procedures, and policies, and to ensure compliance with federal laws and to make sure that we are truly advancing towards our mission and our values for all of our students.”

This article was updated on Friday, March 22 at 10:51 PM to include the community response to one of the allegations listed in the complaint.