Former Berkeley High chemistry teacher Matthew Bissell lied about his identity to avoid being served a lawsuit alleging that he had sexually assaulted a student, according to an independent process server hired to deliver the court papers.
The lawsuit, filed against Bissell and Berkeley Unified School District in June, claims that Bissell sexually assaulted Rachel Phillips from 1999 until she graduated in 2003. The suit also argues that the district knew about a pattern of inappropriate behavior by Bissell and covered it up.
Bissell was finally served on Aug. 19, two months after the suit was initially filed.
John Winer, a senior partner at Winer, Burritt, & Scott, the firm representing Phillips, said he can’t remember another case when a professor or schoolteacher evaded a lawsuit being served.
It took three attempts for process servers to deliver the papers to Bissell.
The first time a server tried to deliver the papers, on July 23, he showed up at the wrong house: Bissell’s mother’s home in Berkeley. An older man who answered the door said that Bissell had not lived there for at least 10 years.
The second time, on Aug. 1, a different process server visited Bissell’s home in Richmond. Bissell did answer the door, but was able to convince the process server that he wasn’t Bissell, according to the server, Dennis Kittleson, who said the door was answered by a middle-aged man with dark hair and blue eyes. When Kittleson asked for Bissell, the man insisted that no man by that name lived at the address. Kittleson said he believed him.
“I was completely lied to. Usually, I pick up when somebody is lying to me. But he was a great actor,” Kittleson said.
It’s common that people lie or don’t answer the door in the hopes of avoiding legal action. Kittleson estimated that this happens in about half of his assignments.
Three weeks later, after more research confirmed that Bissell did indeed live at the Richmond house, Kittleson returned on Aug. 19. This time, the door was answered by a girl Kittleson estimated to be 6 or 7 years old. When Kittleson asked for Matthew Bissell, the girl said he was her dad and ran into the house. When Bissell accepted the lawsuit, he seemed solemn, according to Kittleson.
“That was definitely the man I spoke to on my first attempt,” Kittleson said. “The second time, he was kind of just expecting it.”
Bissell is being sued for damages, but the amount has not been determined. Serving him allows the legal process to move forward.
“It’s an important step because, for the victims, actually having Bissell personally accountable is critical,” Winer said. “I believe that having him part of the case gives us more leverage in trying to get his license revoked, so he can’t teach anywhere else.”
Bissell’s last day as a Berkeley Unified employee was June 4, according to a BUSD human resources report. But Bissell’s California teaching credential remains valid, allowing him to work at other school districts.
In the spring, Bissell worked as a substitute teacher at Learning Without Limits, an elementary charter school in Oakland, Berkeleyside has confirmed with multiple sources. He may have worked as a substitute at other schools in the area as well.
“An educator’s license remains valid until a final decision has been made by the Commission unless specific adverse licensing action is required to be taken by operation of law,” Sasha Horwitz, public affairs manager at the Commission of Teacher Credentialing, wrote in an email to Berkeleyside.
A teacher at Learning Without Limits said she recognized Bissell because he had taught her chemistry when she attended Berkeley High. The teacher, who asked to remain anonymous, said she checked the sign-in sheet for substitutes and saw the name “Sasha Bissell” printed on the log. When Bissell was a student at Berkeley High, he was known by his nickname “Sasha,” former classmates said.
A LinkedIn account has been made for a “Sasha Bissell” of Richmond, California. Listed under work experience is a single entry showing that Sasha Bissell taught at “Unified School District” from September 1996 to present, around the time Bissell started working at Berkeley Unified.
The circumstances around Bissell’s departure from Berkeley High are unknown. While a decision was made to end Bissell’s contract at the end of the 2021 school year (the decision was documented in a human resources report Feb. 17), there is no record of him being put on leave in the 2020-21 academic year, according to HR reports shared in BUSD board meetings. As of publication time, BUSD has not answered Berkeleyside’s questions about whether Bissell was put on leave and, if so, what the conditions of his leave were or why the decision was not included in the HR reports.
Bissell has 30 days to respond after being served. It’s unclear whether Bissell will be represented by an attorney or if he will represent himself.
Berkeley Unified has already been served and is being represented by Spinelli, Donald and Nott, which litigates “large exposure and contested liability sexual abuse of minor claims,” according to the firm’s website.