Berkeley Law student project combats sexual harassment and violence

There may be no stronger unifying thread among Berkeley Law students than their commitment to pro bono work, with more than 90% engaging in it before graduating. In recognition of National Pro Bono Week, we highlight one of the school’s many initiatives that students can engage in as early as their first semester - and can lead as early as their second year.

By Andrew Cohen  For the students in Berkeley Law’s Survivor Advocacy Project (SAP), the legal complexity and emotional weight of their work can be highly demanding. But co-leaders and 2Ls Sarah Zweig, Rachel Gaines, and Sarah O’Farrell also describe it as extraordinarily rewarding. 

"It’s been the most significant and valuable part of my law school journey thus far," Gaines says. "Making real, substantial contributions to such impactful work in the survivor advocacy space isn’t something I ever imagined I’d have the opportunity to take part in during law school, let alone starting in my very first semester." 

Striving to prevent and combat sexual harassment and violence, SAP provides communities within UC Berkeley, the Bay Area, and beyond with legal support aimed at empowering and supporting survivors. The group’s two current projects reflect the broad scope of that advocacy. 

Working with the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center with supervising attorney Dave Rini, 2L Sydni Green and 1Ls Rebecca Goren, Joseph Kyburz, and Natalie Wright are drafting a memorandum of understanding (MOU) to be used by victim service agencies in Massachusetts - mainly rape crisis centers - that are working with state correctional agencies to satisfy their obligations under the Prison Rape Elimination Act. 

The act requires correctional agencies to have an agreement with outside emotional support organizations that can provide certain specific resources to prisoners, such as crisis intervention hotline support, advocacy during sexual assault evidence collection, and advocates for investigational interviews. However, the law provides no additional guidance about what these agreements should look like, or what obligations should be addressed when making them.

In Massachusetts and many other states, this ambiguity has led to a patchwork of formal and informal agreements that leave glaring gaps in services for prisoners. SAP aims to help develop a comprehensive and annotated memorandum of understanding template that any rape crisis center and correctional agency can use to meet their legal obligations and ensure that all

Exploring new terrain

The group’s second initiative is with Equal Rights Advocates, a gender justice legal organization founded by Berkeley Law students in 1974. Supervised by attorney Maha Ibrahim, LL.M. student Mengruo Huang and 1Ls Julia Cofiño, Karina Sanchez, Parmis Ghafelehbashi, Skylar Falcon, and Taylor Thomas will explore new and creative ways of using existing legal mechanisms to defend the right to bodily autonomy and expand access to care across the country through an in-depth research and writing project exploring the intersection between Title IX, Title VII, and reproductive rights.

With the rollback of reproductive rights in the United States since the Supreme Court’s ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, finding alternative pathways to protect them has become urgent. SAP’s legal research will help build a foundation for potential novel litigation and legislation for abortion access for students within Title IX’s school-based anti-discrimination protections, and for workers within Title VII’s employment-based protections.

Students will deliver a detailed research memorandum on these issues by the end of the academic year. 

"These issues may not be exactly what comes to mind when we think about supporting survivors of sexual harassment and violence, but they are important considerations that have the potential for substantial impact," Zweig says. "Legal support to survivors comes in many shapes and sizes, and often relies on resources from outside of the legal system as well. I continue to learn from our supervising attorneys on the varied ways legal needs manifest for survivors."

SAP’s co-leaders implement regular checkpoints on research progress and weekly meetings with the group’s supervising attorneys to ensure students remain on track.

A collaborative process

"We hope that students are able to contribute meaningfully to their projects, and also build a community of members that can discuss these issues and rely on each other while working through often difficult subject matter," Zweig says. 

SAP emphasizes that students’ ability to gain perspective on the issues faced by survivor communities is greatly enhanced by learning how to be thoughtful, supportive advocates.

"It’s incredibly important when working with survivors to be an active listener and aim to empower survivors rather than speak for those affected by sexual violence or sexual assault," O’Farrell says. "SAP aims to build a generation of lawyers dedicated to preventing and combatting sexual harassment and violence, who also have the abilities to be effective advocates for their clients. We hope to empower and support survivors of sexual violence by emphasizing skills of prevention, advocacy, training, empathy, cultural competency, and healing."

Like all of Berkeley Law’s 40 Student-Initiated Legal Services Projects under the school’s Pro Bono Program , students can join as early as their first semester. That opportunity enabled SAP’s co-leaders to gain meaningful experience right away, and to now lead the group in their second year of law school. 

"The project stood out to me as a particularly meaningful opportunity to empower and support individuals who are so often silenced and forgotten, within and beyond the Berkeley community," Gaines says. "Our attorney supervisors are incredible resources and mentors, and I truly believe the tools they’ve shared with us will be invaluable throughout our legal careers. I am so proud to be a part of the SAP community, and it’s certainly an added bonus that my student co-leaders have become two of my very best friends."