Berkeley Assemblymember Buffy Wicks is looking into whether legislative changes are needed to protect California students from sexual harm, after a Berkeleyside investigation revealed that Berkeley High knew for 15 years about allegations that a chemistry teacher was sexually harassing generations of students.
“What has happened here is absolutely appalling — and it’s long past time for leadership at all levels to address it head on,” Wicks said in a statement to Berkeleyside. “[W]e are actively exploring if and what changes can be made to the California Public Records Act and Education Code — to ensure that our students are protected, and that these complaints never get swept under the rug.”
Berkeleyside’s investigation found that Superintendent Brent Stephens allowed the teacher, Matthew Bissell, to resign quietly in June after a former student leveled a formal accusation of sexual assault against him. But even after the district substantiated the student’s claims that Bissell had repeatedly groped her in class from 1999-2003, Berkeley Unified refused to turn over Bissell’s disciplinary records until Berkeleyside threatened to sue the district for violating Public Records Act law.
Berkeleyside’s investigation prompted Berkeley Councilmember Terry Taplin to send a letter to Wicks and Assemblymember Mia Bonta urging them to amend Public Records Act law to mandate disclosure of records in cases of substantiated sexual harassment allegations. (Bonta declined to comment for this story.)
“Parents, students, and members of our community have a right to know if someone with a record of sustained sexual harassment complaints is employed by a public agency, and if so, how the agency disciplined the employee,” Taplin wrote in the letter.
Taplin, a 2006 graduate of Berkeley High, said the long-standing allegations of sexual harassment and district inaction struck a chord with him.
“It’s impossible for me to reconcile that this could be going on … for so long, in everyone’s face this whole time,” he said.
Personnel records are typically subject to privacy laws, but case law says that they should be disclosed when there are serious, well-founded allegations at stake.
On Nov. 7, Berkeleyside’s attorney informed the district that if it didn’t release Bissell’s disciplinary records by “close of business on Thursday November 11,” then Berkeleyside would pursue the records through litigation. The district sent over the records at 5:21 p.m. on Nov. 11.
Superintendent Stephens, who declined to comment for this story, told Berkeleyside last month that the delay in releasing the records was caused, in part, by the need to evaluate competing privacy laws. The district handed over the documents as soon as it “determined the records request had merit,” he said.
Taplin believes lawmakers should be more explicit about what is required of school districts in cases like these.
“The disclosure of these records should not have been subject to interpretation of judicial precedent and the threat of litigation,” Taplin wrote.
Read Councilmember Terry Taplin’s letter to assemblymembers Buffy Wicks and Mia Bonta:
Senator Nancy Skinner, copied on Taplin’s letter, told Berkeleyside she doesn’t think that a change to state law is warranted, though BUSD was “clearly in the wrong.”
“They were aware of that teacher’s conduct for years and, for the protection of the students, there was a completely inadequate response,” said Skinner, who believes the problem might be that BUSD missed opportunities to discipline Bissell earlier on. She said an amendment to the law wouldn’t necessarily prevent public agencies from delaying the disclosure of information.
“It’s terrible that any public agency is non-responsive to the law, and that people have to use court challenges sometimes to get them to be,” she said. “The fact that BUSD released as soon as Berkeleyside threatened to sue indicates right away that BUSD didn’t think they wouldn’t necessarily have withstood a court challenge.”
Councilmembers Rashi Kesarwani and Susan Wengraf said they support the change proposed in Taplin’s letter, as well as further action.
“California should require all school districts to disclose if claims of sexual misconduct against an educator have been substantiated,” Kesarwani said in a statement, adding that Berkeleyside’s reporting “raises serious questions for me about the district’s protocols for acting on student complaints, capacity to conduct rigorous investigations, and preparation to impose escalating enforcement in a timely manner when repeated complaints of sexual misconduct are substantiated.”
“I feel like we’ve really failed students,” said Wengraf, expressing a desire for the school district to give girls confidence to “move forward with formal complaints and expose this kind of behavior.” Wengraf said she would consider co-sponsoring a City Council proposal aimed at safeguarding students from sexual harm.
Taplin praised “the courage of the people who have come forward,” but said that never should have been required.
“It’s really on us as as leaders and as public institutions to have adequate transparency and accountability,” he said.
Correction: This article previously misstated Terry Taplin’s graduation year. He graduated from Berkeley High in 2009.