Navigating the Berkeley High Complaint Process
The Academic Choice Advisory Council’s Student Voice Subcommittee has worked on publicizing the complaint process for students and parents at Berkeley High for several years. Thus far there has yet to be an easily accessible reference with a complete list of what to do if you are having a problem. The BUSD site clearly lists the steps of the complaint process at the District level. Let’s ask Berkeley High to do the same on their “Parents Resources” page, which now has only vague assurances that complaints are taken seriously and there will be no negative consequences. But if you have a complaint, where do you begin?
This is our effort to inform parents about the steps of the process. First we outline the official process for attempting to solve a problem your student is having at Berkeley High. A practical, insider’s discussion follows.
Important: In the case of sexual harassment/assault or bullying, there is a separate procedure to follow. Also consult Stop Harassing, a student-led effort to support students who are experiencing sexual harassment and assault or bullying at Berkeley High.
First Step: The Informal Complaint Process (at Berkeley High): It is highly recommended you attempt these informal steps first.
–Contact the teacher first, by email or phone, to discuss the problem and a possible solution. The student can meet with the teacher alone, but this is not required. A student may bring a parent and a Berkeley High staff member including her/his counselor, the department head or a vice-principal. Find the contact information for BHS staff here: http://bhs.berkeleyschools.net/information/staff/
–If you feel uncomfortable meeting with the teacher or that meeting does not result in a satisfactory solution, contact your student’s guidance counselor. S/he is in a position to serve as an intermediary to work out an informal solution with the teacher. Find your student’s guidance counselor here: http://bhs.berkeleyschools.net/resources/counseling/
–The Berkeley Unified School District complaint page then suggests you raise your concern with the principal or vice-principal at Berkeley High in an attempt to resolve the problem at the school site level.
Second Step: The Formal Complaint Process (at the School District level)
–If none of the steps of the informal process result in a satisfactory solution, you may submit a written complaint to the Berkeley Unified School District’s District Compliance Officer. You have six months from the date of the incident or the date of your knowledge of the incident to act. Basically, a District-level complaint deals with the way a concern was treated at the school site, so it’s a two-prong complaint including the original concern and the way the school’s administration dealt with it. Details can be found at: http://www.berkeleyschools.net/complaints/
–The form is available in English and Spanish. You will receive acknowledgment of the receipt of the complaint and may be interviewed. The final reply from the District Compliance Officer is promised within 60 business days.
–If the initial response from BUSD does not result in a satisfactory solution, you may appeal the decision. The complaint will be reviewed by the Superintendent or the California Department of Education, depending on the nature of the complaint. Details for the appeal process will be included with the District Compliance Officer’s response to the original complaint.
The Complaint Process from the Parents’ Perspective
First, some general advice
Document everything: If you are having a problem with a teacher, the curriculum or anything else, begin to document the issue in writing as soon as you begin to feel uncomfortable with your child’s situation. Write down the date, time, place and details of the interaction. Keep copies of any emails or correspondence as well as logs of telephone calls. A successful complaint requires evidence. The more evidence you have, the stronger your chance of resolution. However, even if you did not keep a very detailed level of records, it is still okay to file a complaint with less specific details (e.g. “this happened after class in mid-October” rather than “October 14 at 2:35 pm”)
Be persistent: You will need to be persistent throughout this process. Teachers and administrators are overloaded with responsibilities. They respond to emergencies and issues that do not go away easily. You must make it clear to them that you will not go away until you have a satisfactory solution. There will be times when you wonder if it’s worth the trouble. Your child’s welfare is worth the trouble.
If you fear retaliation, you’re not alone: In particular if a teacher is not behaving professionally in the classroom, it is not unreasonable to fear retaliation. Berkeley High administrators and the District claim they will act quickly if a teacher retaliates against your student because of a complaint. Nonetheless, the concern is still there. Some parents wait until after the student receives a final grade (remember that you have only six months to file a complaint from the time you are first aware of a problem). However, some problems cannot wait that long and in fact are best served by moving the student to a different class immediately. Weigh your options and identify the solution you think will serve your student best. Again, be sure to document any behavior that may constitute retaliation.
The process at the school site is vague at the current time: You may notice that there is no step-by-step complaint process published on Berkeley High’s website. We are advocating for more clarity in the complaint process at the school-site level, along the lines of the District policy, but for now parents have to share our knowledge and experiences among ourselves.
Now on to the individual steps of the complaint process
Contact the teacher to discuss the problem. Ideally this will result in a supportive, productive discussion. Although the culture encourages students to “handle it themselves,” a situation that involves a complaint against a teacher can be overwhelming for a student due to the power inequity. Remember that a student is allowed to bring a parent, her/his counselor, or the department head to support him/her when discussing a problem in the classroom.
If the teacher doesn’t respond to your request: As you know, teachers are busy and you must be persistent. Don’t wait too long to follow up. If s/he doesn’t respond to your first email or call, wait 48 hours and send another with “Second Try” in the subject line. If there is no reply after 24 hours, send again with “Third Try” in the subject line and copy your vice-principal and guidance counselor. Find your counselor and vice-principal of your Small Learning Community here: http://bhs.berkeleyschools.net/information/staff/.
If you feel uncomfortable talking directly to the teacher: Unfortunately, there are situations where talking to the teacher is difficult: when the teacher imposes harsh discipline on students; in cases of individual harassment; when a new teacher with poor control of the class; in an intimidating environment where exams are given on material not covered in class; or when teachers refuse to answer students’ questions. You may feel vulnerable to teacher retaliation. Although it is strongly recommended you talk to the teacher first, it is not required. You can begin at the counselor level. Administrators may also offer to accompany you to a meeting with the teacher to help you feel safe. If you still prefer not to, BUSD allows parents to file a written complaint without meeting with the teacher first if you have a good reason. The BHS student planner states:
“The best way to give feedback to a teacher is to approach the teacher after class or send him or her an e-mail, provided that it is an issue you feel comfortable discussing with the teacher, such as an issue with your grade or project. For personal issues with the teacher, or any other issue that you do not feel comfortable reporting directly, you should talk to your counselor, the vice principal of your small learning community, or the principal. Any of these adults should be able to help, and you should select one you are comfortable with. Then ask to submit an official report. You must meet with an administrator, and possibly a teacher, to submit such a report. You cannot be persecuted or retaliated against for reporting an issue with a teacher, as this would violate the California Education Code section 234.1. You may also ask to submit the report anonymously. You can also report bullying to a teacher or administrator in a similar manner.”
“Step 1” of the official BUSD written complaint form also states:
“Every effort should be made to resolve a complaint at the earliest possible stage. Whenever possible, you should communicate directly with the employee involved in order to resolve concerns. If you are unable or unwilling to resolve the complaint directly with the employee, you may file a written complaint directly to the principal or immediate supervisor (Step 2).”
Meeting with the guidance counselor: Counselors are very busy, too. Some respond immediately, but some do not. In that case follow the same email strategy of “second try” and “third try” with a copy to the vice-principal. If this doesn’t result in a meeting, try calling, having your student stop by the counselor’s office to set up a meeting in person, or stop by yourself if you have time in the morning, at lunch or at the end of the school day. It’s time for more persistence. Find your student’s guidance counselor here.
The department lead teacher is another option: For some complaints, contacting the teacher who is the head of the department or small learning community can be effective. Other times, it won’t be, but you can try. Contact information is available on the staff directory.
Keep emails short: There is a reasonable tendency for parents to want to explain the context of a problem at length, but we’ve been told by a number of administrators that brief emails are more effective. One said he doesn’t read past the first paragraph and prefers bullet point presentations. Another told me, “These folks are busy. They won’t read to the end.” As a compromise, we recommend starting with a brief paragraph that explains the problem simply and why it requires immediate attention. Use one or two vivid examples of a teacher’s problematic behavior or a toxic classroom environment as an illustration. Ask for a meeting as soon as possible. Then if you’d like to explain further, say you outline the problem more fully below and include all of those other things you wanted to say. Some people do read to the end. Administrators have definitely heard similar complaints before, so you don’t have to prepare them for bad news or argue for your right to express yourself.
The role of the vice-principal: Many of us assume the vice-principal is the natural next step for an appeal if attempts to resolve a problem at lower levels don’t work. The District also suggests you contact the principal or vice-principal to solve the problem at the school site.
The reality is more complicated. Vice-principals are formally only allowed to facilitate communication between families and teachers/counselors, not get involved in the complaint issues. However, vice-principals often get involved if there is a more general problem in the classroom such as multiple complaints, a substitute teacher problem or curriculum problems. We suggest you try to contact the vice-principal anyway and see what happens. Be sure to emphasize that you would like a reply as soon as possible. Be persistent. Don’t be surprised if they claim it is out of their jurisdiction. It really depends on the situation. Sometimes parents have had to camp out in the main office to get a meeting to happen.
Submitting a written complaint to the Berkeley Unified School District: You’ve tried the teacher and the counselor but the problem hasn’t been solved. The vice-principal and principal are too busy or claim they can’t get involved. Parents are understandably hesitant to submit a written complaint to BUSD. It feels serious, almost like a lawsuit. It is not. Associate Superintendent Pasquale Scuderi reassured the Student Voice Subcommittee that the District really wants to know if there is a problem. The written complaint process exists to serve you and inform the District of problems, as well as provide a valuable written record of these issues.
File the written complaint immediately after you’ve exhausted the options at Berkeley High: Parents experienced in the complaint process said it is critical to submit your BUSD complaint as soon as possible. Don’t wait. The official process takes time. One suggestion is to prepare your written complaint while you wait for your meetings at Berkeley High. You can use these notes to present your case at the meetings and then be ready to go if a satisfactory solution is not reached. If administrators promise an action, but don’t deliver in a week or so, check back in and then file the BUSD complaint.
You have six months to file a complaint: The BUSD School Board complaint policy states: “Complaints shall be filed no later than six months from the date the alleged violation occurred, or six months from the date the complainant first obtained knowledge of the alleged violation.”
You may add additional pages if needed or consider submitting several complaints: Often your complaint will take more space than the amount offered on the form. You may include additional pages to explain your complaint fully. However, veterans of the complaint process recommend that if you have a long list of complaints that aren’t all directly related, you should consider filing a separate complaint for each major incident or theme (for example, file one complaint for a grading issue, one complaint for problems with testing policies, one complaint for an intimidating classroom environment and refusal to answer student questions), because this will encourage BUSD to respond to each individual issue rather than summarizing all of them in one general reply. Parents have found that longer complaints lead to general replies that leave out significant areas of the original complaint. Make it easy for BUSD to handle each issue thoroughly with separate complaints.
If you need help filling out the form: The BUSD Board complaint policy states that “If you need help filling out the form, please ask an administrator at your school site, or contact the District Compliance Officer, Dana Clark, at email@example.com or 510.486.9338.” The Board Policy adds that: “If the complainant is unable to put the complaint in writing due to disability or language barriers, the District shall assist the complainant in filing the complaint.”
The BUSD School Board Policy on Complaints can be found here: http://www.berkeleyschools.net/schoolboard/policies/
The text of the Board Policy is here: http://www.berkeleyschools.net/wp-content/uploads/2017/09/Final-Board-Policy-1311-Regarding-Complaints.pdf
Submit individual complaints as an individual rather than as a group of parents, if possible: The Assistant Superintendent told us that they take a special interest if they get more than one complaint about a teacher or incident. We understand that parents might be reluctant to complain about a teacher and feel safer signing on to a single complaint letter with other parents. However, you are losing a lot of power, because the group complaint is basically counted as one complaint. It is better for each parent to submit a separate complaint to convey the gravity of the situation.
If the problem persists, continue to submit complaint updates: Once you have filed a complaint, if additional incidents of consequence occur, go through the school site process quickly, then immediately file an additional written complaint if they do not handle the complaint to your satisfaction. This may seem like you are being a nuisance, but again it is important for the District to be informed of the ongoing problem so they can take action and also protect your student from retaliation. (If you feel there is retaliation, contact the school and file a complaint immediately). Remember that you have six months to report an incident, so sooner is better. For example, you initially submit a written complaint in November about a certain incident with a teacher or staff member. If the teacher/staff member does something similarly problematic in December, submit a follow-up complaint. If the problem continues in January and so on, file additional complaints as necessary.
Expect to wait, but be persistent: The BUSD website claims you will get an answer within 60 days. It does not spell out that this means 60 working days, vacation days not included. Often it takes a few days to log the complaint. We recommend that you take the complaint to the District Office at 2020 Bonar Street in person if you want to speed up the process. Once logged in, the process can be delayed if administrators are sick, overwhelmed or on leave. Once the deadline for the reply has passed, start contacting the District Compliance Officer by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Use the “second try” then “third try” method with copies to the assistant superintendent and superintendent. Some parents have reported that they have had to go to her office at 2020 Bonar in person to get a reply. Others have reported that many phone messages and emails have resulted in a reply.
This is the timeline BUSD is supposed to follow:
Complaint Form Against Policy, Practice or Procedure, or District Employee for Use by Parents, Employees, Residents and Students
Board Policy and Administrative Regulation 1312.1
For any concern or complaint against any Berkeley Unified School District policy, practice, or procedure; any school site practice or procedure; or a District employee:
- Step 1: Informal Resolution with Principal or Department Head
- Step 2: Filing a Written Formal Complaint
- Step 3: Site or Department Conference (within 5 business days)
- Step 4: District Review (within 5 working days)
- Step 5: Superintendent’s or Designee’s Review (within 5 business days; written response w/in 10 working days of review)
- Step 6: Requesting a Board of Directors’ Hearing
Appeal if you are not satisfied: Be ready to appeal if the response to your written complaint is not satisfactory. You’ve come this far, so go ahead and challenge the status quo to help BUSD make the educational experience better and safer for all students. An appeal must be filed within 15 days of receiving the District Compliance Officer’s report. The report will inform you how to make an appeal.
Here’s the official word on the appeal process: The appeal process differs depending on the nature of the complaint.
For complaints involving (a)-(e) above, complainants may file an appeal to the California Department of Education within 15 days of receiving the District Compliance Officer’s or designee’s written report.
For complaints involving (f)* above, the complainant may file an appeal in writing to the Superintendent, stating the basis for the appeal, within 15 days of receiving the District Compliance Officer’s or designee’s written report. The Superintendent or designee shall provide a written response to the appeal within 15 school days.
If you still don’t reach a satisfactory solution after the appeal: Some parents have resorted to lawsuits. This is obviously a last resort and only possible for parents with the resources. We hope it doesn’t come to this, but in the interest of full disclosure, it’s an option some have taken resulting in benefits for all BUSD students. Depending on the complaint, you can also try to raise awareness in the community by speaking at the School Board’s public comments section of their meetings, which happen twice a month. You can meet with School Board directors at their office hours, and write an op-ed for Berkeleyside.
Each complaint process is different: As you see, the complaint process at Berkeley High is complicated and each experience varies. Feel free to contact us to suggest any additions to this list that you think will help other parents.