ADL, Brandeis Center file Title VI complaint against Berkeley school system for rampant antisemitism

The complaint alleges widespread bullying and taunting against Jewish students, with minimal recourse from school officials

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Students in a classroom

Students chanting “kill the Jews.” 

Students asking their Jewish classmates what “their number is,” referring to numbers tattooed on Jews during the Holocaust.

Teacher-promoted walk-outs in support of Hamas.

A second-grade teacher leading a classroom activity where children wrote: “Stop Bombing Babies” on sticky notes to display in the building.

Those are some of the incidents endured by K-12 Jewish students in the Berkeley Unified School District (BUSD) that have sparked a Title VI complaint filed on Wednesday with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, Jewish Insider has learned. 

The complaint alleges that the district has failed to take action against “severe and persistent” bullying and harassment of Jewish students by peers and teachers since Oct. 7.  

JI has obtained a copy of the complaint, which was filed jointly by the Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law and the Anti-Defamation League. It states that Berkeley administrators have ignored parent reports, including a letter signed by 1,370 Berkeley community members to the Berkeley superintendent and Board of Education, while knowingly allowing its public schools to become hostile environments for Jewish and Israeli students.

Chiara Juster, a parent in the district for years, recently made what she called the “uncomfortable” decision to pull her eighth-grade daughter out of the school district and homeschool instead because of “scary” antisemitism in the school district. 

“She was called a ‘midget Jew,’” Juster told JI. “That just shook me in a different way than [other bullying she had faced]. It was scary.”  

Juster recalled that her daughter was able to transfer to a different class, away from the student who name-called, but the situation grew worse. “That first day in the new class, she was told by a teacher that she should go to the watermelon club” — a reference to a symbol associated with Palestinian rights — “to learn the truth about Gaza.”

“The answer shouldn’t have to be moving classes,” Juster said, adding that homeschooling has been a challenge but that she doesn’t “trust the district to keep my child safe at all.” 

“I think [the administration is full of] empty words,” she continued. “I hear things like ‘this is a safe and inclusive environment,’ when it’s anything but. I think the school district is trying to sweep a problem under the rug, and I don’t have a lot of hope. What I would like to see is no kid ever feel uncomfortable because of the way they were born and for the schools to protect our kids. I can’t believe I even need to say this in this day and age.” 

Trish McDermott, a spokesperson for BUSD, told JI that “the district is not aware of any families that have left the district for this reason [antisemitism].” 

Since Hamas’ Oct. 7 terror attacks on Israel, antisemitism has skyrocketed on U.S. college campuses. The Department of Education is currently investigating complaints filed against Wellesley College, SUNY New Paltz, the University of Southern California, Brooklyn College and the University of Illinois. The Brandeis Center recently filed federal complaints against American University and the University of California, Berkeley over concerns about the administration’s handling of antisemitism.

But the ideology behind anti-Israel sentiments infiltrating campuses is beginning earlier than college — and has been creeping in some public K-12 schools. The complaint against BUSD comes on the heels of a Title VI investigation that was opened in Oakland and San Franscico’s K-12 school districts. At least 30 parents between the two school districts have withdrawn their children and transferred them to other districts following an educator-organized unauthorized teach-in for Gaza last month.

“California has numerous anti-discrimination laws that apply to schools but are not being enforced by the district or by anyone else,” Rachel Lerman, the Brandeis Center’s vice chair and general counsel who is overseeing the complaint, told JI. “We are hoping this investigation will reveal some of the rot that is there and will prompt [action] on the part of the district.” 

Since Oct. 7, the ADL has recorded a total of 256 antisemitic incidents, ranging from swastika graffiti to physical assault, in elementary, middle and high schools alone. The data represents a 140% increase compared to the same three-month period a year prior. 

James Pasch, ADL’s senior director for national litigation, told JI that “there has certainly been a pattern of significant [antisemitism] in K-12 schools, particularly in California, but what we’re seeing is not isolated to California. We’ve seen it from coast to coast.”

“[The BUSD] district has certainly been [particularly] pervasive… and there’s a lack of a comprehensive response from the administration to protect its Jewish students… [which is] a legal obligation,” Pasch continued. “It needs to stop now.” 

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