How Berkeley High's Whisper Network Sparked a Movement

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How Berkeley High's Whisper Network Sparked a Movement

BERKELEY, Calif.—Last month, a list appeared, scrawled with thick black marker on a stall door in a girls’ bathroom at Berkeley High School. “Boys to watch out 4,” it read. Six names followed, each appearing alongside allegations including “rapist” and “susAF” (suspicious as fuck). Written next to the list were instructions: “add names if you want,” “stay safe, ladies,” and “support each other always,” followed by a drawing of a heart with an arrow through it.

The previous week, a lawsuit had been filed by a student against the school for allegedly mishandling an on-campus sexual assault case. It was far from the first time that Berkeley High was accused of failing to protect its students; a few years earlier, the school district even became the subject of a related federal investigation. Now, a student had taken things into her own hands.

The message went up during a morning class period and, just a few bell rings later, students poured into hallways now reeking of the harsh cleaning chemicals used to strip the list from the stall door. Although the list was quickly removed by the school, it survived on social media, where students widely shared snapshots of it. As Sophia Kerievsky, a 17-year-old junior, put it, “The whole school was talking about the list.” That afternoon and onward, similar lists went up in bathrooms throughout the school and featured names of other alleged perpetrators, as well as messages showing solidarity with survivors of sexual assault. Things like, “Keep each other safe.” Those were promptly removed, too.

“The school’s principal…sent an email to the student body addressing what she called the ‘bathroom graffiti.’”

The day after the first list appeared, the school’s principal, Erin Schweng, sent an email to the student body addressing what she called the “bathroom graffiti.” She addressed the loudening chorus of outrage at the school’s perceived inaction by writing that administrators were limited in how they could respond to incidents that happen off-campus and outside of the regular school day, where “disciplinary consequences such as suspension and expulsion do not apply.”

Throughout the student body, the boys on the multiple lists, some of whom are among the most popular kids in school, had plenty of defenders, with classmates making arguments on campus and online about “confidentiality,” “false accusations,” and “due process.” Cameron Amianda, a 16-year-old junior, says that she was repeatedly confronted, even pushed into lockers, by students who suspected that she had started the list. “People were just really, really upset about their friends who have assaulted people being called out for assault,” she said, dryly.

Amianda was part of a group of junior girls in the Communication Arts and Sciences (CAS) program—one of Berkeley High’s five “learning communities” within the school of more than 3,000 students—that started discussing the list, the controversy, and the school’s response. They decided to plan a walkout. At the same time, a group of senior girls decided to plan a sit-in. They felt a sense of responsibility as departing upperclassmen because many of the boys seen on campus as problematic are juniors. As Ayisha Friedman, a 17-year-old senior, put it, “How the fuck are we going to leave this school and leave these girls with these boys?”

This country is coming off years of high-profile attention to the handling of sexual assault allegations on college campuses, thanks, in part, to student activists like Emma Sulkowicz and Obama-era awareness campaigns. Despite the focus of public attention, though, the problem exists at the elementary and high school level, too. That is particularly true as it relates to violations of Title IX, the law prohibiting sex discrimination, which applies to sexual harassment and assault, in educational programs that receive federal funding.

In 2016, the last year for which public data is available, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR), which is tasked with investigating Title IX complaints, reported a 277 percent increase since 2011 in reported sexual violence at the K-12 level. Now, though, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is expected to overturn an Obama-era Title IX guidance, emphasize defendants’ rights, and allow schools to choose a higher evidentiary standard in sexual harassment and assault cases, which could have devastating implications at all education levels.

If any group of teenagers is well-positioned within such a climate, it would seem on the surface to be the students of Berkeley High—who are spared the falsehoods of abstinence-only programs and who are conversant in terms like “toxic masculinity” and “rape culture”—yet there are indications otherwise.

For years, the school has been the subject of complaints around its handling of sexual harassment and assault. In 2014, students were outraged by a school assembly in which an administrator linked the problem of sexual harassment on campus to girls’ clothing choices. In response, students formed BHS Stop Harassing, a group that helped bring attention to problems at the school, like the recurrence of “slut accounts” created by boys on Instagram to sexually shame girls, as reported by the local news site Berkeleyside. The activist group made clear that the problem went beyond the harassers: One girl featured on a “slut account” said that when she complained to the school, the security staffers tasked with interviewing her asked, “Are you a slut?”

The following year, the Berkeley Unified School District (BUSD) became the focus of a federal OCR investigation into allegations of inadequately addressing sexual harassment and assault. The investigation was launched after a parent filed a complaint alleging a systematic problem, however a resulting investigation focused specifically on the “slut accounts.” Ultimately, OCR determined that this case had “been resolved,” according to a letter sent to the parent who brought the original complaint, noting in part that the school district took steps to “address a hostile environment for students,” and that the involved boys had since graduated.

Two years later, in 2017, students attended multiple school board meetings to once again plead for the issue to be taken seriously. Then, in January of this year, another federal investigation was opened into allegations involving BUSD and sexual harassment, according to OCR’s website. The following month, the lawsuit was filed against the school district over administrators’ handling of the allegation of sexual assault and attempted rape in a Berkeley High classroom last year. The suit alleges, among many other things, that when the victim reported the assault, administrators said that “her assailant had assaulted 6-10 other girls” at the school, but despite awareness of previous assaults “nothing was done to adequately supervise this student and ensure that he was not a danger” to students. The district superintendent declined to comment on “the details of this pending litigation,” but stated to police that “educators followed district policy and appropriately reported the allegation.”

In response to student outrage, representatives from the administration and school district have claimed that their hands are tied when it comes to leveling consequences in many of these cases. “Something that happens at a party on a Friday night, the district doesn’t have jurisdiction,” said Trish McDermott, a Berkeley Public Schools public information officer. She pointed to California’s education code, which limits suspension and expulsion to incidents that happen on school grounds, going to or coming from school, during the lunch period, or at or around a school-sponsored activity. The school can, however, “put in place student safety plans to help [the involved] students keep distance” from each other.

For incidents alleged to have happened either on campus or in direct connection to the school, she says there is a range of potential consequences. “Students have the right to feel safe at school, but it’s a complex issue,” she continued. “Allegations and convictions are very different things. Accused students also have rights, you know.” Of course, and yet, many students feel that it is the rights of the accused that have taken precedent at Berkeley High. As is so often the case when the whisper network is made tangible, the bathroom list was an act of desperation in the face of systemic failure. “Stay safe, ladies” is just another way of saying: “Let’s keep ourselves safe, because no one else will.”

When I began reporting this story, “even in Berkeley” was a phrase that kept popping into my head, but I should know better. I was born and raised in the city and graduated from Berkeley High 18 years ago. Although Berkeley is known as a bastion of progressive politics, it is also a city of yawning divides in terms of wealth, privilege, and power. In my personal observation, the popular caricature of tie-dye shirts and “coexist” bumper stickers can provide an inaccurate sense of political engagement, deemphasize meaningful self-examination, and stunt evolution around issues ranging from racism to sexual harassment.

The notion of “even in Berkeley” is part of the problem. It might be more accurate to say: Of course in Berkeley. Of course these issues fester where it is often assumed to not be an issue. The activists behind the walkout and sit-in have no delusions about how the city’s progressive reputation stacks up to the on-the-ground reality, not when Amianda is getting pushed into lockers for being suspected of starting the bathroom list. When Friedman, the 17-year-old senior, posted to social media about her organizing, she received threatening calls from blocked phone numbers. “We know where you live and you need to stop,” one caller told her.

On the morning of the planned action, I met seven girls involved in the walkout and sit-in at Maîson Bleue, a French cafe neighboring the blocks-long campus in downtown Berkeley. They sat around a long wooden table set below street level with a window displaying the sneakered feet of students rushing toward their first classes. “Girls are coming out about their stories and it’s like, ‘Oh, this boy again. Oh, this boy again,’” said Friedman, the lone senior in the group. “We clearly have a problem.”

Part of that problem, the group said, is a culture on campus in which sexual predation is tolerated, if not celebrated, and victims are silenced through intimidation. A couple of the most popular boys on campus, some of them athletes, appeared in the bathroom lists. “They’re the ones putting on the parties,” said Lena Ostroy Harp, a 17-year-old junior, of the boys she considers to be a problem. They have access to “a house, alcohol, cars,” said Friedman. Fosket-Hydes called them “the frat boys of Berkeley High.” The group pointed to the enabling conditions of wealth, white privilege, and jock culture.

Of course, the other part of the problem is the school’s response. In the immediate wake of the first bathroom list, Principal Schweng emailed the student body to say that the administration was working on arranging “restorative justice circles,” which typically bring together someone who has caused harm with those they have harmed alongside a skilled facilitator in the interest of accountability and repairing community ties. This rankled some organizers and led students to circulate memes, including an adaptation of images of Nancy Pelosi ripping up Donald Trump’s State of the Union speech, with Trump subbing in for Schweng, Pelosi for the student body, and the speech for restorative justice circles.

“We don’t think it’s fair for them to say, ‘Here’s a little feelings circle after everything that’s happened,’” said Kerievsky. “We want real punishments. We don’t want a circle where we talk about how hurt we are.”

The group’s vision going into the walkout and sit-in was to demand appropriate consequences for the accused, including everything from removal from sports teams to expulsion. The girls were familiar, though, with the administration’s excuses on this front. “Since forever we’ve been listening to what they can’t do,” said Rusma Kharel, a 16-year-old junior. “They haven’t been telling us what they can do.” Eliza Fosket-Hydes, a 17-year-old junior, added, “All we hear is, ‘No, sorry, we can’t do that.’”

As a result, they decided to come up with a list of possible things the administration can do in addition to punishments for the accused. That included providing clarity on what they say is a convoluted process for reporting allegations of sexual harassment and assault to the administration. “I’ve never reported what happened to me because I don’t know how,” said Friedman. Then Amianda jumped in: “I’ve done it and I could not reiterate to you the correct way to do it.” They wanted a Title IX coordinator, the person tasked with addressing sexual harm complaints, solely assigned to Berkeley High, as opposed to the entire school district.

Berkeley High is exposing these girls to the same injustices, power abuses, and institutional failures of the real adult world—and much too early.

Consequences were not enough, though. They also wanted prevention. On this front, they suggested the introduction of broader consent education, an idea that Schweng had broached in her email to students and at a school board meeting. The organizers recalled the short animated video they were shown during their freshman year titled Tea and Consent, which compares consent to making someone a cup of tea. In it, a chatty narrator explains: “If you say ‘Hey, would you like a cup of tea’ and they’re like ‘Uh, you know, I’m not really sure,’ then you can make them a cup of tea or not, but be aware that they might not drink it and if they don’t drink it then—and this is the important bit—don’t make them drink it.”

The video, which went viral in the wake of the Brock Turner case, is appealing for its treatment of consent as a straightforward and intuitive matter, but as a high school teaching method it is avoidant, allegorical, and confusing. The group shook their heads at the memory as Friedman said with a laugh, “What the fuck was that metaphor.” It was all they could recall in the way of consent education. Similarly, sex education was remembered mostly as lessons in putting on a condom. Thanks to that education, or lack thereof, some of these girls were only just now realizing that their sexual encounters from early on in high school were actually assault. Yet these kids are the lucky ones who have been spared the scourge of abstinence-only education in this country.

At one point, the conversation turned to the reckoning that they imagined these boys would face after high school, once they reached the adult realm. “They’re in high school and there’s a lot the school can’t do to punish them,” said Fosket-Hydes. “They are going to be excused for these actions, but in two years, they’re not.” Kerievsky added, “In the real world you’re gonna go to jail.” I started speaking before I could stop myself. “Hopefully,” I said, bleakly. The group laughed and shifted uneasily. Here I was, a cynical emissary from the “real world”—and a former Berkeley High student, even—meeting their optimism with the suggestion that things were not so different on the outside.

I didn’t mention that the “boys to watch out for” list had played out similarly to what we have seen with related “real world” efforts, like the Shitty Media Men list. People anonymously contributed to a Google Spreadsheet, instead of a bathroom stall door, in an attempt to issue a range of warnings about men with varying degrees of power and access in a particular professional field, not unlike the so-called “frat boys of Berkeley High” are said to act as powerful social gatekeepers at the school. In response to the Google Spreadsheet, plenty of commentators made appeals to please think of the accused. Meanwhile, the list’s creator wasn’t pushed into lockers, but she did face the rumored threat of doxxing and a defamation lawsuit seeking $1.5 million in damages.

I didn’t mention that Berkeley High is exposing these girls to the same injustices, power abuses, and institutional failures of the real adult world—and much too early. I didn’t mention that Berkeley High, like innumerable high schools that fail to adequately educate teenagers about sex, consent, and relationships, has a hand in creating the reality of that real adult world.

The walkout got underway with hundreds of students gathering in the school’s main courtyard wearing red and holding signs reading things like “I should feel safe at school” and “Hold UR Bros Accountable.” I peered through the school gate, having been barred by school officials from entering the grounds for reasons of “student privacy.” Some of my teen interview subjects devastatingly suggested that I sneak in by pretending to be “a mom” or “a teacher” (never suggesting that I could pass for a student). Instead, I stood at the gate made of thick metal bars and realized that it was a formidable replacement of the chainlink fence that had neighbored the A Building in my Berkeley High days. Back then, someone had cut a hole in the fence, which we referred to as the “A-hole” and climbed through to cut class.

Now, I watched as students who had decided against participating in the courtyard walkout streamed out of a swinging metal door that locked with a loud clang behind them. I started keeping tally of the ratio of boys using the walkout as an excuse to just leave campus. I counted 20 boys to two girls, then I stopped keeping track.

I started chatting with a woman lingering nearby: Her name was Maya, she asked to not use her last name, and said her daughter and son attend Berkeley High. The night before, she had spoken with her daughter, a freshman, about the walkout. “I was concerned how she was taking the side of the accused,” she said. “It was ‘innocent before proven guilty’ and blah blah blah. We had to have a conversation about why usual routes of justice aren’t always successful for women and girls who are reporting.”

Earlier that morning, her daughter had changed her mind and decided to attend the walkout, after all.

I don’t want to know. I don’t want to hear him saying, ‘This is bullshit.’

We started talking about her son’s group of friends as boys kept streaming out of the school. “I just saw a few of them walk by and I thought, ‘I know why you’re leaving the school, I know who you are,’” she said, tearing up. “There’s a lot of white privilege here, and male privilege.” She explained that her son was on the lacrosse team and added with an uncomfortable laugh, “You don’t want to hang out with those guys.”

We watched as boys continued to stream out of the gate as the rally continued inside on the courtyard. I asked whether her son had planned to attend the walkout. “I didn’t ask him,” she said, her voice dropping to a near whisper. “I don’t want to know. I don’t want to hear him saying, ‘This is bullshit.’”

Maya was one of but a handful of parents who showed up to the rally. A liberal, a radical feminist, in her own words. A woman who told me, “Oh, I love Jezebel,” when I named my employer. If she is too afraid to talk with him about his beliefs, it’s difficult to imagine the scenario where such a conversation takes place.

After the courtyard rally, students streamed in a sea of red shirts into the neighboring public park across the street from the school, bringing traffic to a standstill. A microphone was set up as students lined up by the dozens for a chance to speak to hundreds of their schoolmates who sat cross-legged on the grass. Friedman took the mic under the hot afternoon sun to notify everyone that organizers had run out of water bottles for the crowd, but that someone was going to get more. “We’re gonna get hella water, but somebody needs to go and carry it back,” she shouted. “Boys, please come get water, that’s how you can help this situation!”

Several handfuls of boys—some holding signs reading “enough” and “ally”—enthusiastically jumped up from the crowd and ran up to the mic to help. A while later, they returned carrying large pallets of water bottles and handed them out throughout the crowd as the speeches got underway.

“I’ve been having a hard time sleeping,” one girl said, speaking flatly into the mic. “I’ve been crying myself to sleep.” She was followed by another girl who said with a trembling voice, “I’ve had something happen to me too—like, at school.” There followed harrowing accounts from student after student, most of them girls, of sexual harassment and assault that ranged from abstract to devastatingly detailed. In some cases, it was the first time they had ever shared their story with anyone. When speakers broke down into tears, and many did, fellow students rushed up to wrap their arms around them and rub their backs.

The [school district] cannot be shocked that so many of their boys are sexual predators because they’ve been raising them.

“I was sexually assaulted in a BUSD classroom when I was 12 years old,” said one girl, before going on to describe the way the incident has impacted her. “I have a really hard time feeling love and attraction,” she said. “And the person who perpetrated my sexual assault is here today. I have seen him, and he’s here.” She wasn’t the only one in this predicament: “My attacker’s friends are here seeing me speak,” said another student. One of the most powerful moments came when a girl leaned into the mic and firmly said, “The [school district] cannot be shocked that so many of their boys are sexual predators because they’ve been raising them.”

At one point, a boy wearing a plaid red button-up took the mic and, noting the local news cameras, said, “If my parents are watching, sorry y’all, but I’m gay” as the crowd erupted in cheers of support. Then he turned to the story he had to share with the audience: “Once I tell straight men that I’m gay, they start to act different around me. I have been touched in ways I didn’t want to be,” he said as his hand, which gripped the mic, began shaking intensely.

Another boy tearfully detailed the guilt he felt for not having protected his sister from years of sexual abuse at the hands of his stepfather. “My entire life with him, he was teaching me to keep my feelings inside,” he said of his stepfather. “If being a man means putting your loved ones through what [he] put us through, I don’t want any part of that. There would be one thing I would say to him: This is what a man should be.”

The whole time, I was sitting in the audience as a journalist, taking my notes, trying to be the outside observer, but tears kept falling down my face—a first in over a decade of reporting.

At Berkeley High 18 years ago, we were not talking about these issues. It doesn’t mean they weren’t issues. Cat-calling was an everyday occurrence. Friends were groped. I recall whispers about a student “sex tape” being non-consensually shared around campus (which, unless the students involved happened to be 18, would have constituted child pornography). I remember whispers to stay away from the jocks. I know that, revisiting my freshman yearbook, two students were awarded “most likely to date a teacher.” I am certain that many of my classmates experienced sexual abuse and rape.

The subject was rarely raised, though, and certainly not on a microphone in front of hundreds of our classmates. The sit-in left me alternating between two screaming thoughts that felt equally true: “THE KIDS ARE ALRIGHT” and “THE KIDS ARE NOT ALRIGHT.”

The students had enacted their own ad hoc sex, consent, and relationship education by sharing their accounts of harassment and assault.

The next day, hundreds of students marched to the school district office with a set of demands, including but not limited to Title IX training for administrators from elementary school onward and consent education beginning in sixth grade. Superintendent Brent Stephens followed up with an email to the community saying that the office was “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,” while bleakly noting that “funding for this work must still be identified.” Principal Schweng emailed parents to commit in the near term to distributing posters detailing reporting guidelines for sexual harm to every classroom on campus and introducing classroom presentations on subjects including consent.

It occurs to me, though, that with the sit-in at the park the students had enacted their own ad hoc sex, consent, and relationship education by sharing their accounts of harassment and assault. Of course, that education is woefully incomplete.

Their frankness, equally touching and haunting, was especially remarkable when held up against the metaphorical Tea and Consent video that they all watched freshman year. When you hear a teenage girl tearfully recount abuse in a classroom or see a shaking teenage boy talk about being sexually assaulted, the insult and idiocy of a droll cartoon of someone making tea becomes apparent. Those students in the park weren’t just making demands of the school district, but also picking up its years-worth of slack by using their own stories to educate their schoolmates. Sadly, the students who needed it most weren’t there to hear it.

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