Dear Berkeley Community Members,
I am writing today out of great concern for the events over the last week at Berkeley High School. Many of you will have seen or read the media’s coverage of these events – all of which centers on students’ experiences, anger and concerns about sexual harassment and harm. Our students are raising serious issues in a way that is critical and powerful, and we are listening.
Though there were many concerns and emotions expressed over the last week, and during yesterday’s student walk-out and today’s conversation at our district office, many students and parents have focused on what seems to them to be the inaction of the district to address issues of sexual harm, wherever it is alleged to have taken place. We clearly hear our students’ voices that this perceived inaction is unacceptable.
To be clear, it is absolutely not acceptable that any student experiences harassment or assault or harm at any Berkeley school. The Board and BUSD staff take this seriously. We understand students are seeking additional action and change.
In the past several years, BHS and the district have completed a great deal of work in this area, from updating violence prevention education in the ninth grade, introducing Green Dot (a powerful peer-to-peer education and active bystander training program about sexual violence), adding intervention counselors, training staff on Title IX compliance, and bolstering the district’s Complaints Office with additional investigators. In January, we installed posters in the bathrooms and locker rooms of our secondary schools to provide students with information about how to report any instance of sexual harassment, either in person to an adult or by using an online complaint form.
Still, the school, district, and community can do more to educate all our young people about healthy relationships, bystander intervention, how to report an incident, and how staff should respond.
In the wake of this heightened dialogue about sexual harm, we plan several steps – some of which will take place in the near-term, and some of which will require a longer period to plan. We are right now looking at how to make additional counseling and education resources available to students who have come forward in the last few days to share their own story or who wish to support their friends. We are working to identify and secure the help of experts in the area of relationships, trauma, and healing so that we can expand the educational opportunities we make available after the ninth grade. Though funding for this work must still be identified, we will hold this as an important priority during our Spring budgeting work and will engage in discussion about this at budgeting meetings beginning tonight.
It is important to acknowledge and respond to our students’ feeling that we, the adults who take care of them, have done nothing to support them with this issue. We want students and families to know for a certainty that the high school and the district are active in investigating and addressing concerns from students about harassment and sexual harm. Even when a student reports that an incident took place off campus, outside of the school’s jurisdiction, administrators go to great lengths to ensure that the campus remains a safe place. The school administration does apply consequences when it is warranted, including suspension and expulsion, but administrators cannot share with students or parents how they are responding. Student privacy laws strictly prohibit this, even though this silence can lead to perceptions of the school’s inaction. This is a very challenging dilemma that we can’t easily solve.
We trust our young people, and trust that the painful and necessary conversations about students’ experiences on and off campus will lead to positive change in our school and community. We are committed to sharing everything we can about what we already do to limit and address sexual harm in our schools, to listening to the ideas that students bring forward, and to taking further action to better address these important concerns.
Brent Stephens, Ed.D.