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Hundreds of students walked out of their fourth period classes Wednesday and marched two miles from Oakland Technical High School to downtown, where they rallied outside the Oakland Unified School District’s central office. They carried signs, stopped traffic, and repeated chants to pressure the school district to strengthen its policies around sexual harm, which includes discrimination, misconduct, harassment, and assault, and to ensure that students know how to report incidents.
“For far too long, OUSD and surrounding districts have perpetuated a culture that has made sexual misconduct seemingly go unpunished,” said Amara Romero, a junior who planned Wednesday’s protest. “It will take deep structural change to actually fix any of this.”
The march was the latest in a string of student protests across the Bay Area calling out sexual assault and harassment since the school year began. Oakland Tech students also organized a walkout last Friday and spoke about what they say is the mishandling of sexual misconduct incidents by school administrators. In September, students at Oakland School for the Arts walked out of classes to demand more resources for survivors of sexual assault and harassment.
OSA’s student safety committee, which is led by several high schoolers at OSA (the school serves sixth to 12th grades), planned September’s protest. Like students at other schools, they said that going the usual route of reporting incidents and waiting for the school to respond wasn’t accomplishing much. Disrupting class, walking out, and bringing negative attention to the school is another way to get adults’ attention.
“Playing by their rules wasn’t working anymore,” said Symi Gabriel, a ninth grade student at OSA. “A lot of people try to think of the walkout as the culmination and the end of everything, but we see it more as the beginning of getting our voices out there.”
Taking action in public can also inspire students at other schools to plan similar protests and lets them know they aren’t alone—that it isn’t just an issue at their school, committee members said. Several of the committee members also attended Oakland Tech’s walkout.
“Students from a different city messaged us on Instagram, and said ‘You inspired us to do the same thing,’ and I cried,” said Susanna De Angelis Nelson, a senior at OSA and member of the safety committee. “On the bus we were taking to Tech, we were looking at their demands and they are similar to ours. We really started something.”
In response to OSA’s walkout, the charter school’s leaders hired an outside firm to investigate the claims that some students made going back to the 2018-2019 school year. The investigators haven’t found any evidence to substantiate the claims, OSA’s executive director said in a message to the school community on Tuesday. The administration has also been having weekly meetings with the student safety committee to hear their concerns.
Students at Bishop O’Dowd High School, a private Catholic school in East Oakland, held a similar action in September, and this week, students at Ruth Asawa School of the Arts in San Francisco left their classrooms to protest what they see as lenient punishment for perpetrators.
Following Friday’s Oakland Tech walkout, principal Richard Fairly sent an email to the school community reflecting on the protest and maintaining that any accusations of sexual assault or harassment would be investigated.
Romero, 16, felt that the principal didn’t address much of what students were asking for, nor did he commit to changing or implementing any new policies. She also spoke at Friday’s event and asked the crowd how many students knew how to report a sexual assault at school. Few students raised their hands. That and her dissatisfaction with Fairly’s response motivated her to plan Wednesday’s more disruptive protest.
Tech students have laid out five demands for the school and OUSD to implement: a policy for addressing sexual misconduct that doesn’t retraumatize survivors and that students can help create, more support for students who are survivors of sexual harm, training for school staff on how to identify sexual misconduct and how to behave appropriately around students, abolishing the district’s and the school’s student dress code, and establishing a committee of teachers and students to review allegations of sexual misconduct.
Each school in OUSD designs its own dress code, and many female students at Tech object to being told they need to cover up or are dressed inappropriately.
“The dress code inherently sexualizes the students in our community,” Romero said. “We cannot have a safe learning environment if teachers are constantly looking for reasons to sexualize feminine-presenting students.”
Romero also said that Oakland Tech—OUSD’s most populous school, with nearly 2,000 students enrolled—needs its own dedicated Title IX coordinator. There is currently one Title IX coordinator for the entire district, who is tasked with investigating allegations of sex discrimination, which includes misconduct, harassment, and violence.
“The administration isn’t taking enough action against sexual assault in the last few years,” said Nathaniel Cheung, a 10th grader who participated in Wednesday’s march. “We want to see real results happening, not just emails saying investigations are happening.”
The district is creating an additional sex education curriculum for high school students that focuses on consent, said John Sasaki, the district’s spokesman. California requires that schools teach affirmative consent, which means affirmative, conscious, and voluntary agreement to participate in sexual activity. Oakland Unified’s existing sex education curriculum, which does include lessons on consent, is taught each year from fifth to ninth grade. The new curriculum will be a refresher course for 10th, 11th, and 12th graders, and will be taught first at Oakland Tech before other high schools.
“It seems pretty clear that the year and a half we were in the pandemic and not in school or around our peers did have a negative effect on some folks,” he said. “Reminders about the proper way to live and work and go to school in a community is what some students may need a reminder of.”
Students say it’s not just their classmates who have engaged in sexual harassment and other kinds of misconduct, but that teachers and staff have also created an unsafe climate on some campuses. Last summer, Romero and another student started a petition demanding that the district take action against a teacher at Tech whom students had accused of misconduct. In a statement last year, OUSD declined to comment on personnel issues and said the situation at Oakland Tech was being investigated. As of this school year, the teacher named in the petition no longer works at the school.
As students made their way down Broadway on Wednesday, dozens of cars, trucks, and buses honked in support. Once they made it to OUSD’s offices, Romero repeated their demands, and several students talked about their experiences with sexual harm at school.
As word about the protest spread this week, school leaders planned a simultaneous walk-in, for students to discuss their issues with administrators. Many students saw that as a way for the school to undermine the students’ action, and a further example of how adults aren’t listening to their concerns.
“They just try to silence our voices,” said Demi Edwards, a senior. “Their walk-in was planned right after we planned our walkout. I feel like that was a way to silence our voices and what we want to do.”