BHS students sit-in in protest of the mistreatment of Black students and teachers within BUSD


At the beginning of second period on Friday, May 3, 2024, approximately 150 students gathered on the senior steps in protest of the mistreatment of Black students and educators at Berkeley High School. 

The sit-in was organized by two seniors: Ebony Elebeck and Raniiya Nolen. Nolen explained one motivation behind organizing the sit-in.

“It’s (about) the fact that Black staff and Black students are constantly disrespected. They’re not being heard,” Nolen said. “We’ve spoken with admin, we’ve done it the right way for so long and nothing has been done about it.”

  Expanding on the historical and systematic motivations behind the sit-in, BHS sophomore Cyniya Stewart said. “It’s also (about)  the historical mistreatment of Black students and Black teachers at Berkeley High. I’ve heard so many stories of students being mistreated. Students being called racist things or (experiencing) microaggressions.” 

Elebeck and Nolen organized the sit-in alongside the Black Student Union (BSU) and requested the presence of school administrators and Berkeley Unified School District Superintendent Ford Morthel. 

The sit-in began at 9:40 a.m. as students rose to their feet for the Black National Anthem, which was sung by Yemarej Alexander, a BHS senior. After the students sat down, Elebeck and Nolen spoke to the crowd, sharing personal experiences of discrimination within the classroom, as well as anonymous statements submitted by BHS staff before opening up the microphone for any students to come forward and speak to the BHS administration sitting nearby. “This is for the students who have ever been discriminated against or felt unsafe or unseen, and this is a space for them to share their experiences and for admin to hear,” Nolen said. 

Approximately 48 students came forward to speak throughout the entire sit-in. Approximately six of those students shared stories of encounters with substitute teachers, four spoke about experiences within AP classrooms, 10 students spoke about experiences within Berkeley International High School classrooms, and the remaining shared a range of stories from within BHS. 

One of these students was Armana Aradom, the co-president of BSU, who shared both her experiences within BUSD and what she hoped listeners would take away.

“Just because you don’t see oppression or the discrimination that’s happening in the community first hand because you’re not a person of color doesn’t mean that it’s not happening,” Aradom said. 

While many students spoke as an effort to shed light on their experiences at BHS, a large emphasis lay on the importance of having teachers of color at BHS and the larger BUSD community. 

Students sitting on steps clapping.

Quincy Morris-Fry

In a nationally representative sample survey conducted by the National Center for Education statistics, in the 2017-18 school year, “79 percent of public school teachers were white and non-hispanic, and nine percent of public school teachers were Black and non-hispanic.” In 2018, researchers from American University and John Hopkins University released a paper called “The Long-Run Impacts of Same Race teachers” finding that “Black students who’d had just one black teacher by third grade were 13 percent more likely to enroll in college — and those who’d had two were 32 percent more likely.”

When speaking to the crowd, Mariah Lillard Richard, a BHS junior and incoming ASB vice president shared a statistic made available to her during her time on the Berkeley Student Excellence Program (BSEP) committee. 

“Last year, I was in the BSEP committee and that made available to me some very surprising data about academic achievement at Berkeley High (School). There was a statistic that was … 50 percent of Black freshmen have either a D or an F in math,” Lillard-Richard said when she took the microphone, “I was surprised to find out that that has been an ongoing issue for such a long time … Motivation is a really big factor in performing well in your classes and having teachers that look like you … is really important.”

Echoing a similar sentiment, Jayme Lawrence, a BHS junior and class deputy, spoke to the crowd. “We need more Black teachers,” Lawrence said. “We probably have six to our name right now, …  (and) three Black teachers (are) leaving Berkeley High (School) and that is an issue … You don’t understand why representation is important until you don’t have it.” 

Expanding past BHS into the broader BUSD community, Najuna Kiggundu, a BHS sophomore, spoke to the crowd saying, “I have gone to Berkeley schools my entire life. I have three other siblings, not once have (any) of us had a black teacher in elementary school or middle school.”

According to a Berkeleyside article, in the 2018-19 school year, BUSD teachers were “66 percent white, seven percent Asian, seven percent Black, and 12 percent Latino.”  

Junior Class President and incoming ASB President Zariyah King, also came forward speaking to the nearby BHS administrators. 

“Listen to your teachers, listen to your students, listen to what they have to say,” King said. “Don’t just disregard our problems, don’t just throw it in a stack of papers and just continue not to listen to us.”

Alexander expanded on a few of the problems addressed during the sit-in. “This whole thing was just so that we could raise awareness to the disparity that is the lack of racial inclusion in our classrooms and also the small school segregation that is a real thing,” Alexander said. 

The sit-in continued through third period and the beginning of fourth period with more students sharing their experiences with the crowd. BHS students found themselves there for many of the same reasons. 

“I’m here to hear other Black voices who are unfortunately dealing with the same things that I deal with too,” Omoeghie Obidah, a junior said. “Hearing all of these different experiences makes me feel less alone … and just seeing everyone come together was just a really beautiful thing despite the circumstances.”

Later that day, at 8:51 p.m., BHS Principal Juan Raygoza shared an email with the BHS community in regards to the sit-in.  “We are committed to listening to our young people and will continue to work with them in service of ensuring that their experiences are ones that enable them to grow and learn in a safe and welcoming school environment,” Raygoza wrote, “I, along with the BHS team, am committed to BSU leadership to continue the conversation and to take clear steps to address the concerns they shared today.”

Encapsulating many of the student speakers’ demands for tangible action and systematic change, Elebeck ended her personal statement sharing her hopes with the crowd and the larger BHS community. 

  “I want to end this with my hopes,” Elebeck said, “I hope that after you hear my story and the other stories you hear today you make Black studies classes more accessible and you reinstate your mantra that a class space should have open minded and inclusive discussions. And most of all, Berkeley High (School), I hope you’re listening.”