Berkeley High knew for 15 years of allegations chemistry teacher sexually harassed students

After years of sexual misconduct complaints, the school district signed a gag order allowing Matthew Bissell to quietly resign.

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

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

In March 2015, Berkeley High chemistry teacher Matthew Bissell received a 10-page letter from his principal, Kristin Glenchur, stating that his pattern of unprofessional conduct, including ogling female students in low-cut blouses and making inappropriate remarks, constituted grounds for dismissal. 

It was the first time Bissell — now being sued by a former student, Rachel Phillips, who says he repeatedly sexually assaulted her from 1999-2003 — was formally reprimanded by a school administrator for sexual harassment. But district officials had long been aware of his alleged misbehavior. Vice Principal Matt Huxley raised concerns about Bissell ogling students around 2006, according to the letter. And Vice Principal Amy Frey had told him not to comment on girls’ appearances or make inappropriate jokes multiple times between 2008 and 2010.

Bissell would be reprimanded at least twice more, by Vice Principal Felicia Phillips in March 2016 and by Vice Principal Tonia Coleman in May 2018. But Berkeley High was only able to get rid of him last winter.

This information came to light in 25 pages of Bissell’s disciplinary record. The Berkeley Unified School District released them on Nov. 11, four months after Berkeleyside first requested them under the Public Records Act and only after Berkeleyside threatened to sue the district for not complying with the request. 

The files describe a teacher who engaged in sexualized behavior throughout his 24-year career and a revolving door of administrators who — for at least 15 of those years — heard generations of students complain about this behavior but, as far as BUSD records show, investigated it just twice and imposed no punishment beyond a series of reprimands and the assigning of a single sexual harassment training before removing Bissell from the classroom in February. 

But the records the district has released paint an incomplete picture of students’ experiences in Bissell’s classroom, providing only a partial account of what the school district knew or should have known about a teacher some students privately nicknamed “Chester the molester.” 

“Mr. Bissell adamantly denies any allegations of inappropriate conduct,” Alison Crane, an attorney representing Bissell in the lawsuit filed by Phillips, wrote this week in an email to Berkeleyside. She said he “looks forward to the opportunity to address her allegations in court.”  

A separation agreement between Bissell and the district, also released on Nov. 11, reveals what it took to remove Bissell from Berkeley High.

Superintendent Brent Stephens signed the agreement in early February as the district was investigating Phillips’ claims that Bissell tapped and squeezed her buttocks nearly every day while she was a student in his class and that he picked her up and licked and kissed her neck and ear during a 2003 yearbook photo shoot. Phillips’ claims, made in October 2020, would eventually be substantiated by the district’s investigation, which found his alleged sexual misconduct “severe and pervasive.” 

Under the separation agreement, Bissell agreed not to sue, to go on paid leave immediately and to resign quietly at the end of the school year. In return, the district agreed to stay silent about his alleged misconduct to potential employers conducting reference checks, promising to only disclose his basic employment information, which can be a red flag for future hires.

Berkeley High has reported the circumstances of Bissell’s resignation to the California Teaching Credential Commission, which is now investigating him for misconduct. For now, his credential remains valid and he found some work as a substitute in the spring. 

While the lawsuit filed by Phillips on June 15, four months after the signing of the separation agreement, drew widespread press coverage, allegations of educator misconduct don’t always receive such public scrutiny and confidentiality clauses in separation agreements can keep reports of abuse hidden indefinitely. 

The high procedural hurdles to dismissing a public school teacher

Superintendent Brent Stephens. Courtesy of Brent Stephens

District leaders are barred by the separation agreement from sharing anything negative about Bissell’s employment at the district (and say they can’t talk publicly about personnel issues anyway), but Superintendent Stephens and School Board President Ty Alper agreed to speak with Berkeleyside in general terms about the district’s approach to sexual misconduct by educators. Other school board members declined to speak on the record for this story.

Stephens said district policy is to discipline employees engaging in misconduct based on the evidence available. If unprofessional conduct continues, the district will “step up the consequences,” he said, which can include suspension without pay or, in the most serious cases, dismissal. 

Stephens said the district considers a number of factors when deciding whether to dismiss a teacher or come to a separation agreement, including the costs associated with dismissal, the negative impact that testifying and recounting their stories can have on students, and the strength of available evidence against the teacher.

“The procedural hurdles to dismiss a teacher are high,” he said. “Districts must be able to demonstrate with a strong evidence base that the misbehavior has been serious and persistent.” 

Under California law, a teacher can be dismissed for everything from crimes of immorality to unprofessional conduct. But in practice, firing a public school teacher can be a long process costing hundreds of thousands of dollars that may not be successful in even the most egregious of cases

“The safety of students is the paramount concern in any settlement agreement we reach with an employee,” Alper said. “Often, a separation agreement is the best way to immediately and permanently remove a teacher from the classroom.”

But some experts say that the challenges of firing a teacher over allegations of sexual misconduct are overblown. “If you have done a good job record-keeping and investigating, then it’s not hard to fire someone,” said Billie-Jo Grant, a researcher who has published multiple studies on school employee sexual misconduct and advises districts across the country on the issue.

Separation agreements with gag orders are commonplace. They get teachers out of the classroom right away, but they leave the door open for predators to make their way back to young people in a practice widely known as “pass the trash.” Five states — but not California — have laws requiring districts to disclose if claims of sexual misconduct against an educator have been substantiated. 

Bissell has not acknowledged any wrongdoing, according to his disciplinary record. He told administrators in early 2015 that it was not his “intention” to stare at girls’ behinds and he later denied the behavior in a May 2015 letter responding to administrators’ findings. “I do not ogle or leer at women, especially young girls, and I have never approached or attempted to touch or date any of my colleagues or students,” Bissell wrote in the letter.

Bissell also pointed out that he had never been disciplined for sexual harassment prior to 2015, and told administrators that he could not recall being counseled by vice principals on his behavior toward female students. 

Bissell’s attorney said her client would make no further comment about his disciplinary record or the separation agreement due to the pending lawsuit.

For Phillips, Bissell’s disciplinary record reveals a pattern — in which district administrators insufficiently investigate allegations of misconduct and fail to take action to stop it — that’s as familiar as it is painful. 

Phillips says that while she was a student, she told her English teacher, her volleyball coaches and the school’s athletic director that Bissell was assaulting her, but no record of these conversations are to be found in Bissell’s disciplinary record.

Phillips decided to lodge a formal complaint with the district in 2020 after learning that Berkeley High students had continued to report being harassed by Bissell after she left the school.

Her lawsuit alleges that district staff  “engaged in a concerted effort to hide evidence” that Bissell had assaulted her and other underage students. The law firm representing BUSD has filed a motion to dismiss this allegation. 

“With Rachel alone, they had dozens of opportunities to stop this from happening,” said Phillips’ attorney, John Winer, who is also preparing to file a separate lawsuit on behalf of seven other former students of Bissell’s.

On April 9, Phillips received a letter from Samantha Tobias-Espinosa, the head of the district’s human resources department. The letter notified her that the district had finished its investigation and substantiated her allegations that Bissell had sexually abused her. 

“While personnel matters are confidential, please rest assured that the District will be taking appropriate action to address Mr. Bissell’s conduct,” the letter reads. 

What the district did not tell Phillips was that it had already reached the separation agreement with her alleged abuser two months earlier.

“​​It makes me feel very abandoned by a system that was supposed to guide and protect me,” she said. “I haven’t been able to move on from this. And I don’t think that they should be able to move on. It seems like they’re just trying to get rid of it and sweep it under the rug once again.” 

Berkeley High administrator to Bissell: ‘This is the third time in less than a year’  

Former Berkeley High teacher Matthew Bissell resigned in June after he was accused of sexual assault. Credit: Berkeley Unified School District

The 2020-21 investigation that followed Phillips’ complaint found that “both former and current BHS students have corroborated one another in sharing multiple instances of inappropriate conduct committed by Mr. Bissell.” The disciplinary files give snapshots of Bissell’s behavior between 2006 and 2018. 

A “notice of unprofessional conduct and unsatisfactory performance,” written by Principal Glenchur on March 20, 2015, is the first formal reprimand for alleged sexual misconduct in Bissell’s disciplinary record, but it sheds light on long-standing concerns about his behavior. 

In 2006, Vice Principal Huxley spoke with Bissell about complaints that he’d ogle female students and make inappropriate comments in class. And between 2008 and 2010, Vice Principal Frey conducted “multiple counseling and coaching sessions” with Bissell about his unwelcome comments on girls’ appearances, the inappropriate jokes he made and the favoritism he showed students.

These concerns are described briefly in Glenchur’s 2015 notice, but if Huxley or Frey made any written reports about Bissell’s behavior, they are not included in the disciplinary record released to Berkeleyside. Other than with Frey’s coaching, the district didn’t follow up on any sexual harassment allegations against Bissell or conduct any serious investigation into his behavior until 2015, according to the files released by the district. 

Bissell told administrators that he did not remember Huxley or Frey raising any concerns about his behavior. BUSD determined this was not a “credible” claim. 

Glenchur’s notice was the result of an internal investigation sparked by a female student’s complaint and involved interviews with numerous students and teachers. Bissell was put on paid leave while the complaint was investigated but returned to the classroom within a few weeks.

The notice states that Bissell violated the school’s sexual harassment policy toward both teachers and students by staring and leering, putting himself unnecessarily close to students and teachers, and making unwelcome comments about students’ appearances. Bissell engaged in “inappropriate and unprofessional behavior, particularly with female students” in every one of his class periods, the notice claims.

Bissell had “favorites,” female students he paid particular attention to and for whom he sometimes used nicknames, according to the notice. Students told officials that he stared at girls’ breasts and buttocks, especially if they were wearing leggings, shorts, or low-cut shirts. To avoid his gaze, some female students intentionally wore baggy clothes to his class. (Every day before chemistry class, one student changed into a sweatshirt she kept in her locker, the student told Berkeleyside.) 

The notice says Bissell failed to respect the personal space of students and teachers. At lunch-time office hours, one student interviewed by the district described Bissell sitting “far too close” and “making intense and unusual eye contact.” (In multiple interviews with Berkeleyside, former students described further unwanted contact. One student described hugs that lasted uncomfortably long. Another said that he would brush up against her in class on a regular basis. A third said, when she asked a question while taking a test alone with him, he pressed his body against hers.) 

The notice describes how Bissell would comment on female students’ clothes and appearances, making comments like, “Your hair looks beautiful today, the way it flows down your face.” And how he would prompt unwelcome conversations with students about their personal lives, asking questions like, “Is that your boyfriend? He must be a lucky man!” and offering to set students up with one another. 

The notice says he read a love letter aloud in class with individual students’ names included, an exercise students said he did year after year. 

In interviews with administrators and in two 2015 and 2016 letters defending himself to the school district, Bissell argued that his comments and actions had been misconstrued.

He told administrators it was “possible” he complimented students on their clothes, but he could not recall the details. He said questions about weekend parties and students’ romantic partners were an attempt to build a bond with students. He said he always refrained from asking overly personal questions, though he acknowledged he occasionally suggested that students “do something fun” after studying together “to make studying a little more palatable.” He said he stopped teaching as a female student crossed the room not to ogle her, but because he wanted to deter students from getting out of their seats during lessons. He said he looked at students only to determine whether they were wearing the correct attire for gym class, to ensure they were participating, and to prevent students from sneaking out of gym class. 

As for the student whose complaint sparked the 2015 investigation, Bissell wrote that, though he had been in communication with her father throughout the semester about her low grades, her father never mentioned her feeling uncomfortable.

In one of his letters to administrators, Bissell emphasized that he had received positive evaluations for the majority of his tenure at Berkeley High, save one 2010 evaluation that did not mention sexual misconduct. Bissell wrote that he believed his “teaching style and rapport with students had improved” since 2010. “I never received any documentation or communication to contradict this.” He pointed out that he had been a Master Teacher, hosting multiple student teachers in recent years.

A BUSD science teacher who shared a classroom with Bissell for three years wrote in a July 2, 2021, letter, obtained through Berkeleyside’s Public Records Act request, that she had “never seen him behave inappropriately in his role as a teacher and a coach.” “I have never heard feedback from students (male or female) that was negative, nor would cause me any concern,” she wrote. 

In the March 2015 notice, Principal Glenchur gave Bissell a list of 22 directives that he should follow to correct his behavior: He was not to ogle students’ bodies, be alone with students behind closed doors, or make comments to students about their appearances, among other things. 

“Failure to correct the deficiencies in your unprofessional conduct will result in disciplinary action, up to and including dismissal,” the notice reads.

One year later, on March 3, 2016, Bissell received another written reprimand stating that he’d violated the school’s sexual harassment policy by staring at students’ chests and buttocks again. 

“This is the third time in less than a year that you have received formal feedback regarding such contact,” Vice Principal Phillips wrote. (Bissell was also interviewed by the human resources director about his misconduct in 2015.) 

If the district took further action beyond the written reprimand, it was not documented in disciplinary files shared with Berkeleyside. 

On May 23, 2018, Bissell received another “notice of unprofessional conduct” for leaving his gym class unattended and — after a student pulled down the pants of another student, exposing his genitals — failing to explain to those students or to the class why such actions were inappropriate. 

“Your careless behavior here led to at least one of your students being the victim of unwelcome physical conduct of a sexual nature,” the notice reads. 

He was directed to change his behavior and assigned to attend “trainings on classroom management, sexual harassment and anti-bullying.” 

Until this year, these were the only official consequences Bissell faced in a career marked by repeated allegations of sexual misconduct, according to the disciplinary files provided by the district.

Gag orders in separation agreements can allow teachers fired for sexual misconduct to find their way back to serving youth 

After years of inaction, the district finally removed Bissell from Berkeley High four months after Rachel Phillips reported being sexually assaulted. Bissell signed the separation agreement with Berkeley Unified on Feb. 4 and Stephens followed on Feb. 8. 

Critics say confidentiality agreements allow educators who have committed sexual assault to move from district to district without repercussions. On average, a teacher who commits sexual misconduct will pass through three different school districts before they are stopped, according to a 2017 report funded by the U.S. Department of Justice. The same happens at universities, where professors often resign after a sexual assault, only to take a job at another school. 

The agreement signed by Bissell and Stephens prevents district employees from saying anything negative (or positive) about Bissell. 

In the spring, when Bissell was on paid leave from BUSD, he worked as a substitute teacher for at least one Oakland charter elementary school. It’s not clear what kind of reference check was conducted by the substitute agency that works with the charter school network where Bissell worked. Oakland Unified said that Bissell did not work as a substitute at any of its schools last year. 

Grant, the researcher specializing in school employee sexual misconduct, described separation agreements as short-term solutions with serious trade-offs in the long run. Even after a license is revoked, educators who have committed sexual misconduct can still find their way back to serving youth in jobs that don’t require a credential. “Having a letter that says you were fired for a specific policy violation is going to actually be clearer than a revocation from the licensure office,” Grant said.

Berkeley Federation of Teachers President Matt Meyer said the teachers union “stands with our students who depend on us to create environments free of harassment.” By law, teachers unions represent any teacher facing discipline. 

Typically, teachers who receive unsatisfactory evaluations for poor teaching are referred to the district’s peer assistance and review program. Such teachers — and there are only a few each year — receive coaching, and if they don’t improve over the course of multiple years, can be subject to dismissal. But the process is not used to address “accusations of serious neglect of duty or misconduct,” and there are no discipline procedures for them in the union’s contract. 

BUSD only handed over documents after Berkeleyside threatened to sue

On July 17, four days after publishing a story on Rachel Phillips’ lawsuit and the district’s investigation into Bissell’s alleged misconduct, Berkeleyside filed a Public Records Act request seeking information about Bissell’s disciplinary record and complaints filed against him by former students, among other requests. Berkeleyside requested the separation agreement on Sept. 29. 

It took four months to get Berkeley Unified to produce a limited response to Berkeleyside’s initial request. (On Oct. 8, BUSD released district employee emails from July concerning Bissell that the district determined were not subject to privacy laws). During those months, BUSD repeatedly denied that it had the responsibility to produce the disciplinary files, citing personnel privacy and attorney-client privilege in ongoing litigation. 

Mary Keating, who handles the district’s Public Records Act requests (and also serves as the Title IX investigator at Berkeley High), told Berkeleyside in a July 29 email that Bissell’s disciplinary files were “exempt from disclosure” since they were personnel records. 

Berkeleyside’s attorney, Thomas R. Burke, maintained that California law mandates that sufficiently serious complaints of wrongdoing must be disclosed. He informed the district on Nov. 7 that if it didn’t release the records by “close of business on Thursday, November 11​​,” then Berkeleyside would pursue the records through litigation. 

The district sent over the separation agreement and disciplinary record at 5:21 p.m. on Nov. 11.

Stephens said BUSD “did take time to review” the request and evaluate the competing privacy laws. The district handed over the documents as soon as it “determined the records request had merit,” he said. 

The separation agreement states that its contents are subject to Public Records Act requests. 

BUSD can’t locate complaints students say they made about Bissell

For years, student and parent advocates have been calling for change to a system they describe as ineffective and even counterproductive to handling students’ allegations of sexual misconduct. 

Students are reluctant to report misconduct, some because they mistrust the process and others because it can be emotional and traumatizing. Current and former students say that employees at Berkeley High sometimes do not report those cases appropriately. Mardi Walters, a former Title IX coordinator, described the office as ineffective at tracking people who are repeatedly accused of sexual misconduct.

These factors could help explain why there are not more official complaints and notices in Bissell’s  files. In combination with these problems, Berkeley High saw high rates of administrative turnover during the time that Bissell worked as a high school teacher. 

Investigating and disciplining educators appropriately for even small instances of misconduct is key to deterrence, according to Grant. “Because if people know that if they get caught doing even something small, that it’s going to be handled … it creates deterrence.” 

Berkeleyside interviewed 15 students who attended Berkeley High from 1999 to 2021 and recounted stories of times they felt Bissell had behaved inappropriately. Seven of these students say they wrote down complaints about his conduct that they either experienced or witnessed. In response to Berkeleyside’s Public Records Act request for student complaints against Bissell, BUSD could locate only one of these complaints. 

The district could not locate the statement of Xyra Martinez, who was transferred from Bissell’s gym class after telling her English teacher, Morgan Tigerman, that Bissell had ogled her. (Tigerman remembers Martinez telling him that Bissell was staring at her. He said he walked her to an administrator’s office to describe her experience.) Nor could the district locate statements by Oliver Cooper, a former student who didn’t hear back from the school after filing a complaint that Bissell sexually harassed female students in his class. Nor could it find statements by Natalie Bettendorf, who remembers complaining to a district attorney and vice principal about Bissell. (Through his attorney, Bissell declined to respond to these students’ accusations.)

“It was just so ingrained, that everyone knew that he was just this creepy man and he did not hide it one bit. He did not hide that he was a pervert,” said Bettendorf. “It’s so much more on the failure of the district and of the school, in that there were all these reports, and yet [he continued to teach].” 

After students staged walkouts in February 2020 to protest what they described as the high school’s “rape culture,” the district began making some changes, including hiring a Title IX investigator for the high school and two consent education teachers, scanning paper Title IX records, and expanding sexual harassment training for students and teachers. It also purchased a Title IX database this fall, among other changes.

As for Phillips, the sexual abuse she says she suffered —  and the school district’s inaction — continues to haunt her. She wants resolution, for someone to finally take responsibility.

“Why are we protecting him?” she asked.

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