Sticky notes
A Berkeley teacher allegedly instructed second-grade students to write “messages of anti-hate” on sticky notes to hang in the school hallway. (Photo/Screenshot from ADL-Brandeis Center complaint)

Federal complaint describes ‘severe, persistent’ antisemitism in Berkeley schools

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A complaint filed this week with the U.S. Department of Education accuses the Berkeley Unified School District of failing to address harassment and bullying of Jewish students by their peers and teachers in the wake of Oct. 7.

The 41-page complaint, filed Wednesday by the Anti-Defamation League and the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law, urges the Office for Civil Rights to initiate an investigation into Berkeley public schools for alleged violations of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination based on race and national origin in programs that receive federal funds.

The two organizations filed the complaint on behalf of “many parents at BUSD schools whose children have been subjected to severe and persistent harassment and discrimination on the basis of their Jewish ethnicity, shared ancestry, and national origin, and whose reports to administrators have gone ignored for months.”

The complaint later adds: “The verbal and non-verbal acts of harassment and bullying … have created a hostile environment that leaves Jewish and Israeli students feeling marginalized, attacked, frightened, and alienated to the point where many feel compelled to hide their Jewish or Israeli identity.”

If the Office for Civil Rights opens an investigation, it would make Berkeley the latest Bay Area school district to face a federal probe for alleged antisemitic discrimination, after investigations into the Oakland and San Francisco school districts were announced in January.

Since the Oct. 7 Hamas attack in Israel, the Office for Civil Rights has opened 74 “shared ancestry” investigations, the majority of which are believed to be about antisemitism, Islamophobia or anti-Arab discrimination, according to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

The complaint cites many incidents since Oct. 7. The incidents include:

•  Students hearing comments such as “kill the Jews” in classrooms and hallways.

•  Non-Jewish students asking Jewish students what their “number” is, referencing tattoos given to Jews in concentration camps during the Holocaust.

•  A second-grade teacher allegedly leading lessons where students wrote “Stop bombing babies” on sticky notes to display on the school building and outside the classroom “of the only Jewish teacher in the school.”

•  Teachers promoting an Oct. 18 “Walkout for Palestine” where Berkeley High School students left class “without parental permission and walked through the city chanting ‘Stop bombing Gaza’ and ‘From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.” As “students shouted vile anti-Semitic chants,” Berkeley High teachers were “watching from the sidelines.”

Rachel Lerman, general counsel at the Brandeis Center, said she’s aware of several instances of parents pulling their children from BUSD schools because of hostile incidents toward Jewish and Israeli students.

“Absolutely, it’s happening a lot,” Lerman told J. “In Berkeley, Oakland, it continues to happen. The parents keep hoping things can be resolved. But if the kids become so scared that they can’t or don’t want to go to school, the parents will pull them [out].”

Lerman said the complaint does not seek damages from the school district. The hope is that the district will instead comply with federal policies.

“We just want the school to do its job and follow the law,” she said.

Berkeley parent Chiara Juster told J. on Wednesday that the harassment has included attacks on Jewish students’ physical appearance.

Juster said her 13-year-old daughter was called a “midget Jew” at school, shortly before the Israel-Hamas war began. Her daughter’s experience is among the examples of harassment highlighted in the complaint.

At the time, Juster’s daughter was an eighth-grader at Willard Middle School. Juster said her daughter did not feel safe reporting the incident to the school or identifying who was bullying her.

Juster said she reached out to the district’s superintendent about the bullying but ultimately wasn’t satisfied with the district’s response. In January, Juster pulled her daughter out of the school and began homeschooling her.

“All children from all backgrounds should be able to go to school, feel safe and receive an unbiased, objective education,” Juster said. “And they can’t here in Berkeley.”

BUSD, which has about 9,400 students in grades K-12, said Thursday in a statement that it hadn’t received official notification of the complaint but will work with the Office for Civil Rights  in “support of a thorough investigation” into the allegations.

“We believe that classrooms are spaces where all students need to feel safe, seen, felt, and heard,” BUSD Superintendent Enikia Ford Morthel said in the statement. “We work to make these spaces responsive and humanizing for our diverse students, today and every day. … We remain committed to engaging with our community to ensure that BUSD is a district that lives up to its values of excellence, engagement, equity, and enrichment.”

The complaint includes “suggested remedies,” including a district-issued statement “denouncing antisemitism in all its forms and recognizing that Zionism is a key component of Jewish identity for many students at BUSD.”

It also suggests that BUSD create a task force composed of Jewish students and faculty members who can offer input on how to improve Jewish life in the district’s schools.

“It is beyond deplorable that in a moment of rising antisemitism both here in the U.S. and abroad that teachers and administrators at BUSD are falling down in their obligation to protect Jewish students,” ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt said in a statement. “There is no more solemn or basic obligation than protecting our children from the moment when they walk into the doors of their schools.”

Ryan Torok

Ryan Torok is an L.A.-based freelance reporter and former Jewish Journal staff writer.