Reporting sexual misconduct in high school can be traumatic. A new position at Berkeley Unified aims to help

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During her freshman year at Berkeley High last fall, Ava Murakami overheard a classmate make vulgar and sexual comments about a teacher.

Murakami was disturbed and said the student also made derogatory and offensive comments about women and their physical appearance. She decided to file a formal complaint through Title IX, the federal law that prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in schools.

“The intent was for me to file the report on behalf of my community, to be the person who stepped up and that it didn’t go on forever,” she said. “I thought it would be one and done. I sign the paper, it’s over.

But that’s not what happened. Instead, she said the process was long and cryptic, and involved dozens of email exchanges. She said it was difficult to get answers about the status of her complaint, which she was told would be confidential. Then, months into the process, she learned that her name could be shared if the students’ parents asked for that information.

“I was confused,” she said. “So I withdrew (the complaint), even though I already felt exposed.”

Now, as Women’s Rights and Equity Commissioner at Berkeley High, Murakami aims to help other students avoid that experience. She hopes a newly created role in the district, called Title IX Student Support Counselor, could make the difference. The District is still recruiting for the position, but whoever takes the job will provide advice and guidance to students going through the complicated and arduous process of filing Title IX complaints.

In an interview with KQED, Berkeley Superintendent Enikia Ford Morthel said she couldn’t comment on the specifics of what happened in the case. But she said the district is committed to making sure students and staff know their rights, which is part of the reason this new role was created.

“It’s not just about the investigation itself and the outcome, it’s about ‘How can I help you heal? How can I help you navigate as you experience the fallout in real time? said Ford Morthel.

The proposal for the job was originally written “out of sheer rage” by Genevieve Mage, a yearbook consultant at Berkeley High. Mage is the same teacher who helped uncover the sexual assault allegations against Matt Bissell, a former chemistry teacher at Berkeley High. A Berkeleyside investigation found Berkeley High was aware of allegations it sexually harassed students before it was allowed to quietly quit in 2021.

Mage said students turn to her for help because they trust her, but she wasn’t paid to be a therapist, investigator and teacher.

The Women’s Rights and Equity Commissioner at Berkeley High School hopes the newly created role of Title IX Student Support Counselor will make a difference in helping students and staff navigate the process of reporting abuse and sexual misconduct. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

She also saw with her own eyes last year just how agonizing the Title IX process can be. She says a student had threatened to rape and kill her, and the student stayed in her class for about a week after she asked that he be fired for his safety.

When her behavior continued outside of her classroom, she filed a Title IX complaint, which she also expected to be kept confidential.

“I inadvertently revealed students who had come to me in confidence and told me what had happened,” she said. “You also have to imagine that I have power. I have permanence. I have a union to support me legally. How do you think a 15 year old feels?

The Title IX student support counselor, a role more common on college campuses but rare on high schools, would advocate for the needs and emotional well-being of students, including those who file complaints and those charged.

It is also designed to address economic disadvantages where students with access to lawyers receive advice and support, and students with fewer resources may be left on their own.

“Title IX cares about government compliance. The district cares about liability and who is going to be sued. And the student is trapped between these two adults,” Mage explained. “There’s no one out there who’s just like, ‘Hey, what do you need? What do you want to happen?'”

Mage is optimistic, but also worries that the district will have a hard time hiring someone for the job when the school year is already underway, especially when interviews for the job haven’t started yet. The district has struggled with high turnover and low resources in the Title IX office for years.

In addition to the student advocate role, the district will need to hire a new investigator after the previous person in that position resigned in September.

Federal rules governing how schools respond to Title IX complaints are also expected to change by next school year, a decision that many victim and survivor advocates are eagerly anticipating. The Biden administration is rolling back Title IX regulations passed by former Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, which offered greater protections for those accused of misconduct and significantly narrowed the definition of sexual harassment.

As for Ava Murakami, she says that a few weeks ago she met with the district’s Title IX coordinator and compliance officer, Jasmina Viteskic, who took up her position in November. Viteskic organizes office hours for Berkeley High students twice a week.

Murakami said Viteskic guided her through the Title IX process, providing the kind of transparency that was missing when she first asked for help.

“And she explained to me, ‘That’s where they hurt you,'” Murakami said. “I kept having this, like, ‘Oh,’ moment of just, like, ‘Oh, that’s what happened with my report.’ So I really feel a lot better.

Murakami said Viteskic also referred to demands his classmates wrote when they first left class to protest the school’s response to sexual misconduct in 2020.

“It was super cool,” Murakami said.

Demands include regular consent training for student athletes as well as a long-term, well-paid Title IX coordinator.

Students like Murakami plan to continue revising applications this year based on the school’s progress and the needs of their classmates.

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