A haunting photo led this yearbook teacher to uncover alleged sexual assaults at Berkeley High

Last March, Genevieve Mage saw a 2003 yearbook photo of her colleague Matthew Bissell inappropriately hugging a 17-year-old student. She couldn’t let it go.

This story was made possible by the Berkeleyside Founders' Fund.

Genevieve Mage, who teaches yearbook and religion at Berkeley High, started investigating Matthew Bissell’s history after seeing a photo of him hugging a student in a 2003 yearbook. Credit: Supriya Yelimeli

A week before the pandemic shut down Berkeley High, Genevieve Mage saw a photo in a yearbook that stopped her in her tracks — a teacher hugging a 17-year-old student from behind, his face buried in her hair. The caption noted the girl, Rachel Phillips, was voted “most likely to date a teacher” in the 2003 yearbook’s senior poll.

A Berkeley High yearbook photo from 2003 shows Matthew Bissell hugging Rachel Phillips from behind and burying his face in her hair.

Mage, who has taught the yearbook class at Berkeley High since 2019, was horrified. The teacher, Matt Bissell, still worked at the school, teaching chemistry and physical education. Mr. Bissell’s behavior had disturbed a number of students at Berkeley High over the past two decades. Mage didn’t know that then, nor had she heard about his reputation, but the photo stuck with her.

Today, 16 months after Mage first saw the yearbook photo, Bissell no longer works at Berkeley Unified School District. This spring, a district investigation corroborated former and current students’ allegations that Mr. Bissell had behaved inappropriately toward them. And Bissell is now facing a lawsuit, filed in June, alleging that he got away with sexually assaulting and harassing Phillips and other students for years. 

It’s unlikely that either the investigation or the lawsuit would have happened if it weren’t for that photo. Nora Furlong, then a junior at Berkeley High, came across it when a friend gifted her a hard copy of the yearbook from 2003, the year she was born, for her birthday. While working on a project requiring yearbook research in Angela Coppola’s history class, the student tipped the rest of the class off about the “crazy photo” in the 2003 edition. Coppola brought the yearbook to Mage to ask for advice: It was only a matter of time before students blasted the image on social media. 

Weeks earlier, students had staged massive walk-outs in protest of what some students described as the school’s “rape culture” and lax approach toward misconduct. Names of “boys to watch out 4” were etched onto a bathroom stall door. An anonymous student had filed a lawsuit on Jan. 30, 2020, claiming the district failed to protect her after she was sexually assaulted on campus. But Mage advised students to wait while she tried to get consent from Phillips to share it publicly.

Mage found a Berkeley High Alumni Facebook group and sent a message. Three months later, Rachel Phillips replied.

“I have thought a lot,” Phillips wrote in a Facebook message to Mage on June 8. “(T)his teacher shouldn’t be teaching young women.” 

The yearbook

In the months while she waited for Phillips to respond, Mage never stopped thinking about that photo.

She kept digging, unearthing images of Bissell from the school yearbook archives. She found a photo of Bissell from the 1998 yearbook, holding his arms out in front of him. The caption read: “Last time I measured, it was ‘this’ BIG.” In 1999, a caption ran underneath a photo of him with the phrase, “Hey baby! C’mon in!” In another from 2001, Bissell hugs a pregnant teacher, his hands on her hips, his head pressed against her stomach, next to a caption that asks if “Biss” is the “secret father” of her kid.

Whether Bissell had harmed Phillips or not, the photos were evidence to Mage that he was well known among students at Berkeley High, as far back as 1998, for what she characterized as “hard sexual innuendo.”

The photos of Bissell struck Mage as glaringly inappropriate. But they weren’t an anomaly. Many other photographs from yearbooks past revealed that the school administration had permitted teenagers to revel in over-the-line sexual humor.

“Yearbooks are tomes of cultural significance,” said Mage, who had been on the yearbook staff in high school and college. To her, the photos were “a very obvious cultural relic.” 

A photograph of Bissell from the 1998 yearbook.

The category “most likely to date a teacher” first appeared in a Berkeley High yearbook in 1997 and most recently in 2010 and was joined by other superlatives like “most perverse,” “most likely to date a freshman,” “southside nympho” and “biggest hoochie.” 

Standing behind a group of students in a 1986 yearbook photo is someone holding up an open book of a naked woman lying on a bed with her buttocks in the air. In another, near a photo of Bissell, who graduated from Berkeley High in 1991 and played on the baseball team, is the smiling image of a teammate with the caption: “I like to play hardball with girls who play softball.” 

“Most likely to date a teacher?” said Hasmig Minassian, a history teacher who has taught at Berkeley High since 2001 and has assisted a few students in reporting sexual harm to Child Protective Services, the police and Berkeley High administrators. “I probably wouldn’t have batted an eyelash in 2003 either. I honestly probably would have looked at it and been like, yeah, that’s just a Berkeley High thing.”

There was a “pervasive culture that trivialized sexual assault,” Julia Udell, who graduated from Berkeley High in 2004, wrote in an email to Berkeleyside. 

A photo of Bissell in the 1999 Berkeley High yearbook

The yearbook teacher at the time, Lee Amosslee, now known as Lee Trampleasure, said he saw the photo, but he didn’t think much of it.

“I’m kind of like, whatever, you know. And he’s got his arms kind of draped around her, and it’s like, OK, he wasn’t grabbing her. You know, if it was something like that, I would have said, ‘Hey guys, this isn’t a good photo, go back and get another one,” Trampleasure told Berkeleyside. “I had no reason to believe that Mr. Bissell had had any inappropriate behavior.” 

When he went to Berkeley High in the ’70s, a teacher smoked and drank with his students and was known for dating high school girls, Trampleasure told Mage during an interview. (He gave Mage permission to share the recording with Berkeleyside.) 

Trampleasure told Berkeleyside that other teachers did illegal things, too, and “they didn’t have to hide it … nobody cared.” By comparison, when he came back to teach in the ’90s, those teachers were more discreet and the administration drew firmer boundaries.

Looking back now, Trampleasure said he wishes he had intervened, though he maintains that even today, such a photo wouldn’t necessarily be a red flag. “I’m really sorry I wasn’t aware enough to do something about it,” he said.

Bissell wasn’t the only teacher with a questionable reputation, according to Minassian, Coppola, Phillips, and Rebecca Levenson — the parent of three former Berkeley High students who has been central in the fight to get BHS to improve its policies around sexual harm. In 2011, a sexual harassment case against BHS counselor Anthony Smith made it to federal court and eventually ended in a settlement. Over the years, Minassian would overhear students talking about ‘creepy’ teachers, but she said asking students to go deeper or report it usually went nowhere. Students often don’t want to report, she explained.

The lawsuit

When Mage and Phillips finally talked on the phone on June 9, Phillips described how Bissell would tap her buttocks, make comments about her appearance, and engage in a host of other inappropriate behaviors, starting when she was 14 and continuing throughout her time at Berkeley High. (Phillips would later include these and other allegations in her lawsuit.)

Mage bristled. This sounds like sexual assault, Mage thought to herself, wondering if Phillips had reported it. Phillips told Berkeleyside that she complained to a teacher, coaches and the athletic director while she was a student, but she never went to the police.

Mage relayed what she heard from Phillips to school administrators, who asked if she knew of any current students who claimed to have been targeted by Bissell. Mage didn’t, but she took that as a charge to find them. She talked to a number of teachers, trying to find anyone with a story.

Mage ended up interviewing multiple current and former students who said they had complained to school employees about Bissell. If true, this would establish a pattern of inappropriate behavior by Bissell and inaction on the part of the school administration. The district said it can’t comment on personnel matters. Seven other former students have made allegations against Bissell, according to John Winer of the law firm Winer, Burritt, & Scott, which represents Phillips and is preparing to file another suit on behalf of those students.

This story was made possible by the Berkeleyside Founders’ Fund.

“The district technically has all this information,” Mage said, but the sexual harm reporting process protects alleged victims’ privacy. “The injustice here feeds off of isolation. The only way that he’s been able to get away with it for so long, that anyone here in this whole system has been able to get away with this for so long, is because they don’t know about each other.”

After each interview, Mage would urge the individual to file a report with the Title IX office and Berkeley police. Then, she would send them to Levenson, who offered a listening ear and helped them think through the next steps. Over the years, she had engaged in advocacy of her own with another parent, Heidi Goldstein, speaking at school board meetings, writing op-eds and working with BHS Stop Harassing, a student group that formed in Levenson’s kitchen in 2014. Levenson also sits on the district’s Sexual Harassment Advisory Committee.

Phillips didn’t know that there were other former and current students who claimed Bissell behaved inappropriately toward them. That is, until Mage found them. 

This knowledge ultimately motivated Phillips, 36, to go public with her story. Phillips kept her story private for decades, turning to drugs and alcohol to cope. Two years ago, she overdosed on heroin and fentanyl, Phillips told the San Francisco Chronicle.

But this summer was a turning point. She filed a police report, posted about it on BHS Protectors, a now-defunct Instagram account created to out potential predators, and eventually filed a civil complaint against Bissell and Berkeley Unified with the Superior Court of Alameda.

“This is the YEARBOOK PHOTO. Who can imagine what he has been doing off camera if he’s willing to lick and kiss a student’s neck on film. He’s gross guys. Speak up. It’s not just you,” Phillips wrote in the post. “I’ve filed a police report and encourage other girls to also.” 

“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 told Berkeleyside.

Berkeleyside’s attempts to reach Bissell were unsuccessful.

The lawsuit claims that Bissell sexually assaulted and harassed her throughout high school and that the district failed to protect her despite repeated complaints to school employees, covering up the abuse instead. A letter to Phillips from Samantha Tobias-Espinosa, assistant superintendent of the district’s human resources department, confirmed that the school’s investigation found former and current BHS students “corroborated one another in sharing multiple instances of inappropriate conduct committed by Mr. Bissell.”

Genevieve Mage, BHS Yearbook and religion teacher.
Mage explains how she searched for other students at a coffee shop in Berkeley. Credit: Supriya Yelimeli

The culture

“It shouldn’t have been me,” said Mage, sitting on the patio at the back of a coffee shop in downtown Berkeley. “I cannot look at that photo and just say, ‘Oh, you should report that and stop.’ I can’t do that. And I don’t know how I’m the only one saying that shit right now.”

Mage described the process of unearthing the alleged victims as going down a “dark rabbit hole.”

When asked what compelled her to keep digging, Mage said it was personal. 

Beginning in freshman year and continuing through her senior year of high school, Mage said she had been “groomed” by a teacher “so that he could try to sleep with me when I graduated.” 

It wasn’t until her last years of college that she started to realize how he had manipulated her. Mage confronted her former teacher at a bar and wrote a 10-part series for her blog about the teacher’s relationship with her and other girls. Another teacher saw it, printed it and handed it to her school administration. Nothing was done, Mage said.

In another incident, her high school dance teacher slapped her buttocks. “Take it as a compliment that someone finds you attractive,” Mage remembers being told by her mother. 

The problem, Mage said, is rooted in a toxic culture that treats young girls as objects of male attention and teaches them to like it. “I wish we would stop this culture where attention from adult men, toward adolescent women, was considered a compliment because that’s really what got in the way of anyone taking this seriously,” Mage said of her own experience. 

It’s the same problem that Trampleasure said he witnessed at Berkeley High in the ’70s. The same one that Angela Coppola said she was exposed to in her own high school in New York in 1995 and ’96. The same one Phillips is alleging that Bissell perpetuated at Berkeley High. 

“As a teacher now, I would not be able to live with myself if I continued that culture,” Mage said. “I’m just trying to be who I needed when I was younger.”

If you have experienced sexual harm, including assault or harassment, you can visit EqualJusticeAdvocates.org. If you would like to share an experience you had at Berkeley schools, you can email ally@berkeleyside.org.

Ally Markovich covers education for Berkeleyside. Email: ally@berkeleyside.org. Twitter: allymarkovich.