Berkeleyside’s Ally Markovich wins SPJ NorCal award for speaking ‘truth to power’

She won a James Madison Freedom of Information Award for her deep dive into sexual misconduct allegations against a Berkeley High teacher.

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Berkeleyside education reporter Ally Markovich photographed at the UC Berkeley Crescent on March 7, 2022. Credit: Kelly Sullivan

Berkeleyside education reporter Ally Markovich was awarded a James Madison Freedom of Information Award on Wednesday for revealing how Berkeley High administrators failed to protect generations of students who accused a chemistry teacher of sexual misconduct

The award from the Society of Professional Journalists’ Northern California chapter includes a special citation for speaking “truth to power.” 

“I am honored to have received this award, which is a testament to Berkeleyside’s willingness to support long-term, in-depth reporting,” Markovich said. “I couldn’t have seen this project through without the help of my editors, dozens of sources, and veteran journalists who offered advice. This was truly a team effort.” 

Markovich is one of 17 recipients this year, nine of whom are journalists. The awards are given to journalists, public officials, activists, nonprofits, whistleblowers and citizens who the SPJ NorCal board decides have made “significant contributions to advancing freedom of information and expression.” Named after the Founding Father who drafted the First Amendment, they’re handed out on Madison’s birthday. 

A tenacious reporter, Markovich spent four months interviewing students, researching issues around sexual harm and filing increasingly detailed public records requests seeking chemistry teacher Matthew Bissell’s disciplinary records. It was only after Berkeleyside threatened a lawsuit that the Berkeley Unified School District turned over relevant records, which revealed that Superintendent Brent Stephens had signed a gag order letting Bissell resign quietly.

In its commendation, SPJ NorCal cited four stories written by Markovich that “dug deeper” after a former student of Bissell’s filed a lawsuit accusing him of sexually assaulting her two decades ago and accusing Berkeley Unified of covering it up. Markovich was praised for exposing “how inaction by school district officials allowed the teacher’s behavior, hidden in plain sight for decades, to go unchecked.”

“The damning reporting, bolstered by Berkeleyside’s willingness to take the school district to court to enforce the California Public Records Act, drew attention from local and state officials looking to ensure that substantiated claims of sexual misconduct could not be shielded from disclosure,” the commendation reads. 

Prompted by Markovich’s reporting, multiple state legislators and city councilmembers have condemned the school district’s handling of student complaints. 

Assemblymember Buffy Wicks is “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.” And Berkeley Councilmember Terry Taplin is pushing for California’s Public Records Act to explicitly require school districts to disclose when employees have substantiated records of sexual misconduct.

How Markovich pressured the Berkeley school district to release records

In a Berkeleyside Founders’ Fund “Behind the Story” conversation on March 3, education reporter Ally Markovich spoke with managing editor Zac Farber about how she investigated sexual misconduct allegations against a Berkeley High teacher and the resistance she faced from the school district.

When the former student’s lawsuit accusing Bissell of sexual assault surfaced in July, Markovich wrote a same-day story sharing the student’s experience, detailing the allegations in the lawsuit and revealing that Bissell had engaged in a years-long pattern of inappropriate behavior, according to the findings of a Title IX investigation conducted by the district. 

Berkeley High School had already been under mounting pressure to reform how it handles reports of sexual assault. In winter 2020 students walked out of class and stormed the district office — saying sexual assault is prevalent, sharing traumatic stories and demanding administrators do more to stop it.

Markovich decided the allegations against Bissell deserved a closer look, and four days after her initial story, she filed a Public Records Act request seeking information about Bissell’s disciplinary record and complaints filed against him by former students, among other requests. The goal was to learn more about what the district knew and should have known about sexual misconduct alleged by students for decades.

It took four months for Berkeleyside to succeed in getting a substantive response from the district to Markovich’s request. During those months, the district repeatedly denied it had the responsibility to produce the disciplinary files, citing personnel privacy and attorney-client privilege in ongoing litigation. Markovich ratcheted up the pressure, sending the district’s PRA administrator a clarifying request naming eight students who had, according to her reporting, made complaints about Bissell and asking for copies of those complaints. 

The disciplinary records 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 students complain about this behavior but, as far as district 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 his classroom early last year. 

But the district turned over Bissell’s disciplinary records only after being given a firm deadline — Nov. 11, end of day — to avoid a lawsuit. Berkeleyside’s attorney, Thomas R. Burke, maintained that California case law mandates sufficiently serious complaints of wrongdoing must be disclosed, while the district said it was weighing competing privacy requirements. The district released the documents at 5:21 p.m. on Nov. 11.

Markovich is the first Berkeleyside reporter to be honored with a James Madison Freedom of Information award. 

In January, Berkeleyside won two excellence in journalism awards from SPJ NorCal. Housing and homelessness reporter Supriya Yelimeli was recognized as an “outstanding emerging journalist” and news platforms director Doug Ng won for an interactive map he created for a story about Telegraph Avenue businesses. 

Other local James Madison winners this year include Bay Area First Amendment attorney James Wheaton, state Sen. Mike McGuire, who authored a press rights bill, and Facebook whistleblower Sophie Zhang. Brian Krans, Scott Morris, Sarah Belle Lin — all of whose work has appeared on Berkeleyside and its sister site, The Oaklandside — won an advocacy award for their lawsuit against the Oakland Police Department, forcing it to more promptly respond to public records requests. And Paul DeBolt, father of Oaklandside reporter David DeBolt, won the Beverly Kees Educator Award for his four decades as a teacher and adviser to the Contra Costa County student newspaper, The Advocate. Read about all the award winners on the SPJ NorCal website.

Zac Farber is managing editor of Berkeleyside. Email: zac@berkeleyside.org. Twitter: zacfarber.