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Student lawsuit: Berkeley schools ignored sexual harassment

Berkeley Hightvol/FlickrBerkeley High

A Berkeley High School student says she endured months of sexual harassment from her guidance counselor and the school wouldn’t do anything about it.

In a lawsuit filed this week in federal court in San Francisco, the student, a senior identified as Lilah R., contended that the Berkeley Unified School District refused to rein in counselor Anthony Smith despite her complaint about what she called his “unwelcome sexual advances.”

For much of the 2009-10 school year, the lawsuit says the counselor subjected the girl to lewd remarks. He attempted to caress her leg and rub her back, the suit says, and pulled her out of class for “conferences” that had nothing to do with school.

At one point the counselor asked the girl if she slept naked, the lawsuit says; on another occasion he allegedly proposed getting together after school “so I can share some feelings with you.”

The district ignored the girl’s complaint, the lawsuit says, and took no action against Smith even after an Alameda County judge issued a restraining order to keep the counselor away from the girl.

The district doesn’t comment on lawsuits, said spokesman Mark Coplan. A lawyer who has represented Smith in the past said she hadn’t been retained to represent him in this matter and couldn’t comment.

Smith couldn’t be reached for comment. He told the school district he did nothing wrong, records show. He still works at the high school as a counselor.

Although the girl will graduate soon and is college bound, she thought it was important to pursue the lawsuit, said her lawyer, Michael Sorgen.

“You have to worry about the safety of the other children,” the lawyer said.

Among other things, the suit asks a federal judge to order Berkeley schools to comply with laws against sexual harassment.

The lawsuit is the latest development in a dispute that has roiled the 3,300-student high school since the local news website Berkeleyside first reported on it last year.

According to the lawsuit, in November 2009 Smith began subjecting the girl, then 16, to an escalating series of unwanted remarks and inappropriate physical contact. The girl became increasingly fearful, the suit says. In April 2010, after Smith allegedly slapped the girl’s buttocks during a counseling session, she complained to a school administrator.

According to the lawsuit, the school briefly suspended Smith while it investigated. Over the summer, the district wrote a letter to the girl’s parents, saying Smith had committed “inappropriate and unprofessional behavior” and promising “appropriate personnel action.”

But the district wouldn’t say what that was.

Later, district Superintendent William Huyett wrote to the parents declaring that Smith hadn’t committed sexual harassment. In yet another letter, an administrator implied that the district was unable to do anything about Smith because that might violate union work rules.

After that, the girl went to court and got a stay-away order.

The Daily Californian, the UC Berkeley student newspaper, reported that the girl’s parents also circulated a flier at the high school “to warn other parents about this situation." The flier also said, "We are informed and believe that our daughter was not the first to be victimized,” the newspaper reported.

The lawsuit makes a similar charge, saying “there had been an incident report from a prior investigation of Smith.” It gives no details.

The suit asks for unspecified damages.

 

Filed under: K–12, Daily Report

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