Update, March 22: The California Commission on Teacher Credentialing has revoked former Berkeley High teacher Matthew Bissell’s teaching license.
Original story: A former Berkeley High teacher who is facing two sexual assault lawsuits will have his teaching license permanently revoked on March 20, according to a letter from the executive director of California’s Commission on Teacher Credentialing.
Matthew Bissell left Berkeley Unified in June after nearly 25 years as a chemistry and physical education teacher. During that time, Bissell faced multiple complaints of sexual misconduct, which school administrators knew about for at least 15 years, according to disciplinary records obtained by Berkeleyside.
The conditions of his resignation were outlined in a Feb. 2021 separation agreement. Under the agreement, Bissell would resign at the end of the school year, and BUSD agreed to stay silent about Bissell’s alleged sexual misconduct to future employers. The agreement also specified that BUSD would report Bissell to the state credentialing commission.
It took a year after the separation agreement was signed for the commission to issue its decision on Bissell’s credential.
“[T]he California Commission on Teacher Credentialing has revoked all your credentials, life diplomas or other certification documents under the jurisdiction of the commission,” Mary Vixie Sandy, executive director of the Commission on Teacher Credentialing, wrote in a letter addressed to Bissell.
The license revocation is a long-awaited relief for Bissell’s alleged victims, at least nine of whom agreed to sue Bissell in the hopes of preventing him from sexually harassing other students in the future.
Former student Rachel Phillips was motivated to file a lawsuit against Bissell and BUSD in June 2021 after learning about other current and former students who said they had been abused by Bissell.
“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 in July.
Phillips’ attorney John Winer said he thought the lawsuit played a major role in making Bissell’s conduct more visible and contributed to the credential commission’s decision to take away the teaching credential.
“I finally felt heard,” Phillips said in reaction to the news that Bissell would lose his license. For her, the revocation of Bissell’s credential will bring to an end a painful history of inaction on the part of the school district.
The step makes it unlikely that Bissell can work as a public school teacher again. “It’s an incredible relief that people will not feel unsafe in a classroom with Matt Bissell anymore,” said Natalie Bettendorf, a former student who said district administrators didn’t act on her complaints about Bissell’s behavior.
Teachers can petition to have their license reinstated a year after it was revoked, but Bissell’s attorney, Alison Crane, said he “no longer wishes to work as a teacher.”
“He continues to adamantly deny any allegations of inappropriate conduct,” Crane wrote in an email to Berkeleyside Friday.
That Bissell was allowed to work at Berkeley Unified while facing repeated complaints about his behavior is evidence to critics of the systemic failure of BUSD to protect students. In 2006, multiple vice principals counseled Bissell on his alleged misbehavior, telling him not to ogle girls, comment on girls’ appearances or make inappropriate jokes. A formal reprimand was not issued until 2015, according to disciplinary records.
“After 20 years of being enabled by the Berkeley Unified School District, somebody has finally taken action to make sure that he will never be able to do this again to schoolchildren,” Winer said.
But he cautioned that it would take systemic change to prevent a predator from continuing to work at the school district. “Berkeley Unified School District will have an ongoing problem until they change their policies and make it so somebody like Bissell could not survive within their school for over 20 years in the face of at least 10 complaints about him to the administration,” Winer said.
“I know he’s just one teacher in a sea of problematic teachers,” Phillips said. “This doesn’t solve the problem, but I hope this is the impetus for change across the board.”
Reached for comment, Berkeley Unified Superintendent Brent Stephens said all he was permitted to say is that “the district cooperated fully with the CTC’s investigation.”
In the last two years, parents and students have been pushing BUSD to better protect students from sexual harm. BUSD has since set in motion plans to improve the school culture around sexual misconduct and its Title IX reporting process.
Read the full letter from the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing below:
This story was updated after publication to include reactions from former students who complained about Bissell’s behavior.