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Bay Area Students Push Again for Changes to How Schools Handle Sexual Misconduct

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High school students with long hair and wearing face masks hold a sign saying "end the stigma, end the silence."
Students at Bishop O'Dowd High School during walkout in September to address rape culture. (Photo courtesy Elyse Brill)

Content warning: This story contains references to rape and sexual assault.

Now that students are back in the classroom, they’re renewing efforts to push administrators to address sexual harassment and assault on campus. Students across Northern California are on the march to pressure administrators to address sexual assaults, and there have been at least nine walkouts organized across the region in just the last few weeks alone.

At some schools in the Bay Area, like Bishop O'Dowd High School in Oakland, students organizing around these issues is new, and students are laying the groundwork for changes they expect could take years. In other districts, like the Berkeley Unified School District, there is a long history of student activism around changing what they call a rape culture on campus. Palo Alto Unified students are asking for more comprehensive consent education in high school and education on respecting boundaries as early as kindergarten.

Oakland Catholic school students walk out

Aiming to bring discussions of harassment and assault out into the open, high school seniors Kayla Goodin and Olivia Bruhmuller organized recent walkouts at Bishop O'Dowd High School in Oakland. Students said staff at the Catholic college preparatory high school encourages students to advocate for themselves and social justice issues, but students speaking up about sexual misconduct is still new.

"Definitely being a Catholic school, there's a historic culture of all these things are being swept under the rug almost and kind of hidden and not really talked about. So we're trying to acknowledge that and battle it,” Bruhmuller said.

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Since last summer, students at the school have been running an Instagram account — called @odowdprotectors — where students have shared experiences with harassment and assault. Students have posted a range of experiences, like being warned about classmates known to sexually harass freshman girls, being bullied for being bisexual and open discussions about the pressure to send nude photographs.

That account inspired students to create a Gender Justice group to educate each other on the impact of rape culture and advocate for changes to how consent is taught on campus.

In a statement, Bishop O'Dowd Interim Principal Lisa Lomba said the partnership between adult leaders and students has led to updated policies as well as a new tool for digital reporting. She said the school is proud of the maturity, trust and partnership from the Gender Justice group.

During a walkout organized by students last month, organizers asked students to wear blue as a color of solidarity. They said while administrators did not condone the walk out, most of the school showed up.

“It made me literally almost start to cry,” Goodin said. “Just because I think as a teenager and as a young woman, it’s so impactful to not just see girls supporting us, but guys holding up signs and coming to school wearing blue. That was really impactful and powerful to me.”

Students at Bishop O'Dowd High School held a walkout over sexual violence in September (Elyse Brill)

Berkeley High students are 'back in fighting mode'  

Students at Berkeley High are familiar with the impact walking out of class can have on forcing administrators to pay attention, because they held their own walk out back in 2020. It was held weeks before the pandemic shut down schools, and students say teachers still lack adequate training for responding to complaints and the Title IX office that handles reports of abuse still does not have the support it needs.

"The anger is still there. The hurt is still there, the demand is still there," said Abby Lamoreaux, the student commissioner of women's rights and equity at Berkeley High School. "But oftentimes we see this lack of action because a lot of students feel like when it starts dying away, it just starts dying away. You see people after COVID coming back trying to figure out like what they do."

Since returning to class, students have taken to board meetings and Instagram to share experiences with how the school mishandled reports of sexual assault, or how administrators pressured them to report abuse.

Rather than wait for administrators to educate them on their rights, students are educating each other. The Berkeley High School Women’s Student Union recently held a workshop to help students understand their rights around reporting abuse. The group is also training members in self-defense, and preparing for an event at the school called Rally Day — a day of school spirit that students say has also fostered an environment that leads to alcohol use and violent behavior.

“We have all of these plans for buddy system safety rooms, consent, education, letting the student body know beforehand this is going to be different this year,” said Neva Zamil, a senior at Berkeley High with the Women’s Student Union. “It's going to be safe and it's going to be fun. And we're not going to continue bringing the horrible parts of the past into this year.”

Students also want the district to adopt better training and education for teachers and students around Title IX and consent.

“One thing we’re really looking for right now is some accountability from district administration,” said Maize Cline, another senior at Berkeley High with the Women’s Student Union. “Now we’re back in person and we’re back to experiencing harassment. We’re back in fighting mode and we’re ready.”

Superintendent Brent Stephens said in an interview that the district is working to reduce turnover for the Title IX coordinator position and keep the dialogue between students going.  He said administrators are planning to host a series of assemblies on consent, and plan to bring on a new employee for a program to educate athletes about healthy relationships.

Neva Zamil and Maize Cline with the Berkeley High Women's Student Union (Courtesy of Maize Cline)

In this fight for the long haul 

It can be difficult to sustain these student-led movements when leaders graduate every year. That’s why students are starting official clubs on campuses across the Bay Area to provide a permanent space for generations of advocates. Over in Palo Alto, students at Henry M. Gunn High School started the Title IX Club last fall, even while learning remotely. 

“We wanted to make something that would last,” said Rachel Sun, one of the founders of the Title IX Club who graduated from Gunn High School last spring. "What was surprising to us was how long it takes to get something done that feels so simple to us. We’ve learned to be very persistent. Like if they don’t respond, we just keep emailing them.”

They said virtual Board of Education meetings made it easier for students to gather support and encourage their peers to show up.

The Title IX Club helped push the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors to agree to spend $1 million dollars on an audit over how schools handle Title IX complaints last October. Now the Title IX Club is turning to changes they want to see in how consent is taught in schools. They said the consent education they've received in school has felt so out of touch it's difficult to take seriously.

"High school students are given fuel to make fun of it. So I think there needs to be some more research done about how these kinds of issues have changed with the times and how it affects our generation specifically," said Payton Dick, who also graduated from Gunn high school last year.

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The Title IX Club is pushing for lessons on consent taught as early as kindergarten. They created a slideshow, based on research from Harvard Graduate School of Education and other researchers, on what that could look like, including teaching about bodily autonomy and respecting boundaries from a young age.

In a statement, Trent Bahadursingh, the deputy superintendent for Palo Alto Unified School District, said the district is in the process of creating content and determining the best delivery model for age-appropriate conversations. He said after a year and a half of school closures, the district is prepared to get back to in-person work involving consent education.

The student leaders working on these issues say now it's up to them to hold administrators responsible for following through.

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If you're a victim of assault, the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) created and operates the National Sexual Assault Hotline, which is 24/7, confidential and free: (800) 656-HOPE/(800) 656-4673. The Bay Area Women Against Rape (BAWAR) operates a 24-hour hotline in English and Spanish: (510) 345-1056, and the Instituto Familiar de la Raza offers therapy and counseling in English and Spanish: (415) 229-0500. 

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