In 2nd lawsuit, another student accuses Berkeley High chemistry teacher of sexual assault

The suit argues that the Berkeley school district’s inaction reveals a pattern of protecting “predators over students.”


A second former student of Berkeley High chemistry teacher Matthew Bissell has filed a lawsuit against him and the Berkeley Unified School District claiming that he repeatedly groped her in class and that the district failed to protect her and other current and former students over the course of two decades.

Former Berkeley High chemistry teacher Matthew Bissell. Credit: BUSD

Bissell and the district were already facing a lawsuit, filed in June, that claims Bissell sexually assaulted Rachel Phillips throughout her high school career, from 1999-2003.

Now an anonymous student, who told her lawyer that she was inspired to come forward by Phillips’ suit, has filed a suit of her own accusing Bissell of sexual assault — including touching her inappropriately and pressing his genitals against her back — between 1997-98. While the student never reported the behavior to school staff or administrators, the suit argues that district leaders’ inaction at the time, and later, constitutes a “concerted effort to hide the existence of abuse.”

Berkeley Unified spokesperson Trish McDermott sent Berkeleyside a written statement responding to the new allegations. “The emotional and physical safety of every student is a top priority for the district,” she wrote. “Because this case is in litigation, the district can’t comment on any specifics.”

Neither Bissell nor his attorney immediately responded to a request for comment. Last week, an attorney representing Bissell in the lawsuit filed by Phillips said that he “adamantly denies any allegations of inappropriate conduct.”

Bissell no longer works at Berkeley Unified after signing a separation agreement with Superintendent Brent Stephens in February that allowed him to resign quietly after 24 years at the district. The agreement was signed 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. The district later substantiated these claims, finding Bissell’s alleged sexual misconduct “severe and pervasive.”

Read Berkeleyside’s investigation into Bissell’s disciplinary records

A Berkeleyside investigation published last week revealed that district leaders have known about Bissell’s alleged sexual misconduct since at least 2006. Multiple administrators counseled Bissell to stop ogling students and stop making inappropriate comments in class, but issued only two formal reprimands for sexual harassment, in 2015 and 2016, according to disciplinary records released by the district.

The student filing the new lawsuit, identified as “Jane Doe” in court papers, is represented by Manly, Stewart & Finaldi, the law firm that represented sexual abuse victims of Olympic gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar.

The suit says Berkeley Unified “did nothing to change the environment in which it operated from 1997 to the present,” claiming that the school district has employed multiple sexual perpetrators over the years.

“Berkeley Unified School District continues its pattern and practice of protection of predators over students,” the suit reads, arguing that the district “has historically failed to protect the lives of its students going back more than twenty years” and continues to fail to protect students today.

The lawsuit alleges that BUSD unlawfully failed to report Bissell’s alleged abuse, actively dissuaded victims from coming forward, and destroyed evidence related to abuse. (Cristina Nolan, an attorney representing Jane Doe, said these allegations are based on the assumption that multiple students witnessed and/or experienced Bissell’s alleged sexual misconduct, and that multiple staff members knew about it. She expects to find evidence to substantiate those allegations during the discovery portion of the lawsuit.)

The suit states that Bissell, who worked at Berkeley High since around 1996, was moved “within the school district” following accusations in an effort to cover up abuse. Nolan clarified with Berkeleyside that Bissell held multiple positions at the high school, including science and physical education teacher and football coach, which the suit describes as “effectively ‘passing the trash’ within the district” and hiding his “abusive crimes against minors.”

The suit claims that Bissell stood behind the student in order to grope her, inappropriately hugged and touched her, and rubbed her back, all in plain view of staff and administrators. The suit says Bissell repeated these behaviors with other students.

The student did not tell anyone about what she experienced out of fear, and continued to stay silent for years thereafter, according to Nolan, who said the student is still impacted by the abuse she says she went through.

“For a long time, she felt that she was responsible for what happened,” Nolan said. To this day, she continues to experience anxiety, has difficult trusting others, and feels isolated. “It’s something that that’s going to be there throughout her life.”

Nolan said the student wants justice. For her, that means she wants BUSD to take responsibility for its inaction.

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