Oakland School for the Arts seniors Maya McCall, Aisling Baus, and Susanna De Angelis Nelson outside the school on Dec. 2, 2021. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)
On Sept. 30, 2021, hundreds of students at Oakland School for the Arts walked out of class to protest sexual misconduct both on and off campus. Students marched to nearby Uptown ArtPark, where organizers said they read a list of demands that included calls for the school to hold regular assemblies about consent and improve the sex education curriculum.
Maya McCall, 17, who was a senior at the time, helped plan the protest. In an interview with KQED, she said dozens of students lined up that day in the blazing heat for a chance to share their experiences with harassment or assault. Classmates hugged, wore blue to show solidarity and cheered, “We believe you,” and “You’re not alone.”
“Just so much love and support that you don’t know what to do,” McCall said.
But that feeling didn’t last.
Some of the young people who attended the walkout were allegedly retaliated against by students or their family members, according to accounts by classmates.
Certain boys were allegedly called rapists and bullied by other students, according to several parents.
Lisa Sherman-Colt, the school’s executive director at the time, sent an email to the school community that in response to bullying, “there have been several fights and physical or verbal altercations on campus.”
She said the accusations made against students “almost exclusively [targeted] black heterosexual males.”
Organizers said the response from the school created a false division, and undermined the trust of women of color who had experienced abuse and spoke at the walkout.
Mike Oz, the current executive director of the school, declined to be interviewed, but wrote in a March 20 email, “My leadership team and I are one hundred percent focused on providing the support and services our students, families and faculty need as a result of the walkout.”
The upheaval at OSA is not an isolated event, but part of a national movement by students to get schools to take concerns about sexual harassment and abuse seriously, and to create safe ways for students to report incidents.
Faced with inaction by administrators, students in California and around the country have also tried to protect themselves or their friends. In February, a Fortuna High School student was suspended after she wore a T-shirt with the name of an alleged perpetrator and a text message he reportedly sent defending his behavior. Student activists in San Francisco, Berkeley and Los Gatos have said classmates faced social consequences, were harassed online or were threatened with lawsuits.
In an attempt to understand what led to the September walkout at OSA and the chaotic aftermath, KQED spoke with 24 students and alumni. Almost all of them said the school had failed over the years to respond adequately to sexual harassment or abusive behavior.
The publishing of this reporting, which includes several months of interviews and the review of dozens of records, comes just days after the Bay Area News Group reported that a teacher at Oakland School of the Arts, Jeremy Taylor, had been “arrested and charged with molesting a then-14-year-old girl throughout her freshman year, in 2004.” The alleged crime was reported to police last year, according to police records. But Taylor, who was described as “creepy” by a student, was no longer in “active status” at the school effective Jan. 13, according to a memo obtained by KQED that was sent to OSA families.
In an email to OSA families sent Sunday, Oz wrote that the school was notified of allegations against Taylor by Oakland police on Jan. 3, and Taylor was put on "inactive status" that day and "never returned to teach at OSA."
A refuge for young artists
The nonprofit charter school was founded in 2002 by then-Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown to promote the study of arts. Middle and high school students study subjects like theater, dance and fashion design.
Zendaya and Angus Cloud, stars on the hit HBO show “Euphoria,” attended the school. So did Leila Mottley, author of “Nightcrawling” and the youngest writer ever selected by Oprah’s Book Club.
While several students and alumni who spoke with KQED described OSA as a refuge for young artists, they also believed the school at times used its reputation as a safe space and progressive art institution to dismiss harassment or abuse. Several said they were not taken seriously when they reported abusive or inappropriate behavior. Others said they did not complain to administrators because they did not expect support.
Imarra Hunter, 23, graduated from OSA in 2017. In a recent interview, she said she loved studying theater in school, but was crushed her junior year after a school security guard sexually harassed her.
Hunter said she was in the hallway getting a drink of water when the guard, Tamaris Usher, asked her why she needed it.
“I said, ‘I need to take some water with my birth control,’” Hunter recalled. “Once he (saw) that I was taking birth control, he then called me a ‘whore.’”
Hunter and her mom reported the incident to Donn Harris, OSA’s executive director at the time of the incident. According to Hunter, Harris said his goal was to save the security guard’s job and offered to station the man in a different part of the school.
In an email to KQED, Harris asserted that the school took the allegations seriously. Records show the school placed Usher on leave the day Hunter reported the incident. A termination notice shared with KQED shows Usher was terminated after nine days and not allowed on campus during the investigation.
Hunter’s mom sued OSA in 2016 for failing to protect students from sexual harassment. The complaint alleged that school administrators knew that the security guard “had previously accosted other female students in a similar manner, but was neither disciplined nor terminated for such behavior.”
The case was settled in 2017. Usher declined to comment.
Hunter, who majors in theater and communication studies in college, says she’s still wary of getting close to male administrators or teachers.
“I would hate for them to feel comfortable enough to say anything degrading,” Hunter said.
When Hunter filed her lawsuit, Susanna De Angelis Nelson, 18, was in middle school at OSA. They said they loved being surrounded by art and artists.
“I was literally in heaven,” De Angelis Nelson said.
But in high school, they saw another side to campus life.
During the 2018-2019 school year, De Angelis Nelson said a student made repeated sexual comments and touched them without consent. After they reported the sexual harassment to the dean, they said the teacher moved the boy’s seat next to them and the harassment got worse.
“I don’t love the fact that (administrators) say their No. 1 priority is for students to be safe, but that’s the exact opposite of what they’re doing,” De Angelis Nelson said.
In the 2019-2020 school year, several students told KQED they learned classmates were sharing nude photos of female students via social media in what was allegedly known as the “Pokemon Traders” group chat.
Students said the school was aware of the group chat. Cassidy Kanner-Gomes, 17, a rising senior at OSA, said because the school did not communicate about the situation with the student body, rumors began to spread. She remembers walking down the hallway and seeing people staring at the girls.
“The least (the school) could’ve done was give the girls support, which I really don’t think they did,” Kanner-Gomes said.
Steven Borg, a spokesperson for OSA, did not respond to questions from KQED about the group chat or how the school handled allegations made by students. But, in a written statement, he said, “Students do not always fully understand the complexities of what has occurred. Equally important they don’t always fully grasp the privacy and due process regulations we are required to follow.”
“As a teaching institution, we are striving to make sure all of our students feel safe and have agency,” he added. “Much of our restorative work has included education and training in the areas of consent, proper use of social media, bullying, cyber bullying, and procedures to report abuse and how these submissions will be handled.”
For the students who started the Student Safety Committee, the tipping point that compelled them to organize was an April 2021 Instagram post in which a former OSA student detailed allegations of sexual assault by a popular alum. The post generated an outpouring of stories by other students and alumni who said they had been harassed or assaulted in high school.
Justine Courtenay-Huang, 19, a senior at the time, saw the need to create a space for survivors and advocate for protections at the school. Courtenay-Huang created a group chat on the instant messaging app Discord for students to host movie nights, share experiences with sexual abuse or harassment and brainstorm ways to make the school safer.
“It felt like an exhale. Like you’ve been holding your breath for a really long time and finally get a little breath in,” Courtenay-Huang said.
'We're tired. We're fed up.'
The group chat evolved into the Student Safety Committee, which met with school administrators over Zoom — this was during distance learning — to press for solutions. When students returned to campus in the fall of 2021, they said, they wanted more education about sexual harassment and abuse.
McCall, Kanner-Gomes and De Angelis Nelson were all committee members. But they said they didn’t see any progress.
McCall said when she returned to campus, she saw sexual harassment resume.
“The amount of instances of sexual violence that we’ve seen, heard, experienced — all that on campus — is ridiculous,” McCall said. “We’re tired. We’re fed up.”
So the Student Safety Committee led a walkout.
Students said the protest that was meant to create safety and community led to conflict the school was unprepared to manage.
Hours after the walkout, members of the Student Safety Committee began hearing reports that some girls who attended the action were being threatened.
“We’re getting a bunch of people telling us, ‘I’m being threatened,’ and we’re getting screenshots of threats,” said McCall. “So then we’re like, ‘Oh crap, like, what do we do?’”
The next day, organizers with the Student Safety Committee said they tried to warn school officials that people were likely to get hurt if they didn’t take their concerns seriously.
Student Safety Committee member Tai–Ge Min, 18, remembers speaking to a revolving door of administrators and staff.
“We were just begging for attention, begging, like, ‘Please, we’re getting these messages, help us.’ And not really anything was being done,” Min said.
A spokesperson at OSA did not respond to questions about how OSA responded, but said, “There are clear procedures in place when there is a reported issue and all issues are investigated thoroughly.”
School closed for a day, but when students returned to campus, emotions were still raw. Classmates said it was like waiting for something to go wrong, and then it did.
There were at least two physical attacks on campus. A parent said her son, a new member of the Student Safety Committee, had bruises on his neck from being assaulted.
Classmates said another student was physically attacked after he made memes about the group chat where explicit images were allegedly traded. The memes named specific boys and mocked the administration’s response, and students said the boy who made the memes was suspended for cyberbullying.
McCall said she was in the hallway with a friend when boys yelled misogynistic, homophobic comments and charged at them. She said staff held the boys back.
The school did not respond to questions about the alleged incidents. Several parents criticized OSA’s response in a letter to the school's board of directors.
“The administration, in essence, did nothing to prevent the assaults that occurred,” they wrote, adding that it was unclear what would be done to make their children safe at school.
The letter also cited the so-called “Pokemon Traders” group chat as an example of the school’s past failure to address sexual misconduct.
“This issue was not addressed system-wide by the administration,” the parents wrote.
Race and gender
In response to the turmoil on campus, Sherman-Colt, who left her job as executive director earlier this year, wrote to the OSA community that students had been suspended for assault, harassment and cyberbullying.
“OSA is continuing its investigations, reflections, and development regarding sexual violence, racial injustice, and white supremacy culture — all of which have impacted the school community this week,” Sherman-Colt wrote.
Sherman-Colt, now the chief program officer at Cayton Children’s Museum in Santa Monica according to her LinkedIn profile, did not respond to requests for comment.
The atmosphere on campus and online was already tense, and some students said the email only made it worse.
During a virtual board of directors meeting on Oct. 14, 2021, several parents gave impassioned speeches about how Black boys at the school were being bullied and harassed by their peers without evidence they had done anything wrong.
One parent, whom KQED is not naming to protect his son’s safety, pleaded for people to take these concerns seriously.
“Whenever someone speaks about Black boys being called rapists online and in school, in front of teachers and walking the hallways, no one talks about the mental anguish that they will go through the rest of our lives,” he said.
The parent declined to be interviewed for this story, but sent KQED a written statement.
“It is hard to believe that this kind of racial violence and discrimination would occur in 2022 in downtown Oakland at a school that was founded to serve students of color,” he wrote.
Two other parents of boys accused also declined to comment.
During the meeting, McCall and other members of the Student Safety Committee gave a presentation to explain their perspective.
“Staff has been focusing on the race of the accused instead of the race of the victims, who have all been women of color,” McCall said. “You can protect us, too.”
During the meeting Oz said, “I feel bad. I feel stupid in this moment for not predicting the gravity of that situation more accurately. For that I want to take responsibility."
Oz addressed a parent who asked how to choose which side to support.
“The side is to support our students,” he said. “We’re a school. We support all of our 796 students. That’s what we do here. Sometimes students are going to make mistakes. Sometimes those mistakes are going to be huge.”
Investigators: Most claims 'not backed by evidence, unfounded'
Soon after the walkout, the school announced it had hired an outside firm to investigate allegations.
Nearly seven months after the walkout, school leadership sent an email to the campus community that said most allegations made after the walkout were either “not backed by evidence, unfounded, or in some instances a result of mistaken identity or assumed guilt by association.”
It’s unclear, however, which allegations or how many were reported to the school and investigated.
The email went on to say, “We still have members of our community, specifically the falsely accused African American boys and their families, hurting, and this must be addressed.”
Rebecca Levenson, an advisor for BHS Stop Harassing, a Berkeley High School student group, had volunteered to assist OSA after the walkout. She called the school’s statement brave.
“And I say that through the lens of someone who has sat with so many survivors of sexual harm,” she said. “You do not get to destroy someone’s life because you’re mad or because you had a bad experience or you experienced assaults. That’s not how this works.”
Student Safety Committee member Tai-Ge Min said OSA’s focus on false allegations missed the bigger picture, and left survivors who still needed support out of the conversation.
Min said some classmates did not want to file complaints about abuse because they did not trust the school to support them, or were worried the administration would notify police. But because few classmates wanted to make formal allegations, Min said people accused victims of making up elaborate stories.
“Justice has never really come to anyone at OSA,” Min said. “But those girls, however you define justice, they never got any of that.”
Leah Kimble-Price with Bay Area Women Against Rape worries about the long-term impact of OSA’s communications about the walkout.
“We don’t want people to be describing or mischaracterizing something that’s not happening. But for a lot of young people, it is happening,” she said. “This communication, the subtext here is that you may not be believed, and that is devastating.”
And the concerns that led to the walkout continue. Before the school year ended, an anonymous user shared a graphic and offensive post on Instagram that said the girls involved in the walkout weren’t raped or “worthy of getting raped.”
The school did not respond to a question about the post.
McCall, Min and De Angelis Nelson graduated in the spring, but Kanner-Gomes plans to bring administrators carefully crafted ideas on where the school can improve.
“‘Here’s what we think you can do. We’re here to work on this with you. Can you please just really listen?’’’ she said. “If we do that, it’s a lot harder to ignore us.”
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