A student who attended Berkeley High between 1999 and 2003 has filed a lawsuit against her former teacher and the Berkeley Unified School District alleging that the teacher sexually assaulted and harassed her throughout high school and that the district failed to protect her though she made repeated complaints to school officials.
The lawsuit, filed last month by Rachel Phillips in Alameda County Superior Court, comes shortly after the completion of a district investigation into a Title IX complaint Phillips filed in October 2020. The district’s investigation found that science and physical education teacher Matthew Bissell had engaged in a years-long pattern of inappropriate behavior and that his conduct and comments were “both severe and pervasive.”
“Both former and current BHS students have corroborated one another in sharing multiple instances of inappropriate conduct committed by Mr. Bissell,” Samantha Tobias-Espinosa, the head of the district’s human resources department, wrote in a letter to Phillips on April 9. “The District has determined these witnesses to be credible.”
Bissell is no longer employed by Berkeley Unified, Superintendent Brent Stephens said in a voicemail Tuesday, but his name was still listed on the school district’s staff directory.
Phillips’ lawsuit claims that district employees “knew or should have known” about Bissell’s behavior and that they “engaged in a concerted effort to hide evidence” that Bissell had assaulted her and other underage students.
Winer, Burritt, & Scott, the Oakland law firm representing Phillips, is preparing to file another suit with other former students who claim that Bissell sexually harassed them. Seven other former students have made allegations against Bissell, said John Winer, a senior partner at the firm.
Phillips told Berkeleyside that Bissell’s behavior began the summer before her freshman year, when she was in conditioning for Berkeley High’s volleyball team and Bissell was the junior varsity football coach. She was 14 at the time. She said it continued nearly every day while she was a student in Bissell’s chemistry class and until she graduated in 2003. (Berkeleyside does not name alleged sexual assault victims without their consent.)
The lawsuit alleges that Bissell grabbed her crotch and buttocks, cornered her to get her alone and grope her, licked and kissed her ear and neck, reached into her pants and pulled her thong underwear up, and inappropriately touched and talked to her in many other ways, including showing her photos of his topless girlfriend.
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“By no means were his advances ever OK with me,” Phillips said. To this day, she said thinking about Bissell makes her feel sick to her stomach, leaving her with a deep distrust of people outside of her close circle and an anxiety about being in a classroom. “I never understood why it happened to me, why he singled me out.”
Throughout her time at Berkeley High, Phillips said she told the athletic director, her volleyball coaches and an English teacher, but she said Bissell’s behavior continued. “At a certain point, you stop reporting,” Phillips said.
Berkeley High’s 2003 yearbook identifies Phillips as the female student most likely “to date a teacher.” This is illustrated by a photo of Bissell hugging Phillips from behind, his face buried in Phillips’ hair and his mouth open.
Genevieve Mage, who teaches yearbook and religion at Berkeley High, saw the photo in February 2020 and started searching for Phillips and anyone who had been abused by Bissell. When she found her, she put her in touch with Rebecca Levenson, a member of Berkeley Unified’s Sexual Harassment Advisory Committee, who had been in contact with others who alleged that Bissell harassed them.
Those conversations motivated Phillips to speak up about her experience 20 years later.
Read the story of Mage’s months-long search for victims.
“When I found out that he was still teaching, still harassing girls, and there was something I could do about it, I felt like that was something I needed to do to make this place safer and to make other schools safer,” Phillips said.
After Phillips filed a Title IX complaint against Bissell on Oct. 9, 2020, Berkeley Unified placed Bissell on paid leave, Levenson said. The district hired an outside investigator, Joshua Stevens of Fagen Friedman & Fulfrost, LLP, who reviewed documents and interviewed Phillips and other former and current students.
The full results of the Title IX investigation have yet to be reviewed by Berkeleyside, but the letter sent from the district’s HR director to Phillips states that the investigation was able to corroborate her claims that Bissell touched and grabbed her buttocks “nearly every day while you were a student in his class,” that he “commented on your smelling good,” that he “picked you up and licked and kissed your neck and ear” during the 2003 yearbook photoshoot and that he made inappropriate comments about girls’ appearances to Phillips when she was a volleyball coach after graduating.
Bissell did not respond to a request for comment. Berkeley Unified also did not respond to a request for comment, except to tell Berkeleyside about the change in Bissell’s employment.
Bissell began teaching at Berkeley High in 1998, and was the head coach of the Berkeley High football team from 1999 to November 2006, when he stepped down. He taught chemistry and physical education.