Berkeley school district faces 2 more child sex abuse lawsuits

The lawsuits claim staff members at two elementary schools sexually abused students in 1967 and 1995 and the schools failed to stop it.

The Bonar Street headquarters of the Berkeley Unified School District. Photo: Kaia Diringer

Berkeley Unified is now facing two different sexual abuse suits from former students claiming district employees — a music teacher and a discipline officer — sexually assaulted them when they were in elementary school.

The lawsuits, which are unrelated, detail allegations of abuse dating back to 1967 and 1995. In both cases, the suits claim that the employees repeatedly abused children and that the district failed to protect the students.

The first suit, filed in Alameda County Superior Court on March 1, claims that William Borgfeldt, a music teacher, repeatedly sexually abused a 6th grade student at Lincoln Elementary in 1967.

The lawsuit says Borgfeldt had anal and oral sex with the child, fondled the child’s genitals, and masturbated in front of him. The abuse took place at school and during trips to Disneyland, Los Angeles and Texas, according to the suit.

BUSD administrators, the suit claims, failed to stop the abuse, despite the music teacher’s “reputation for abusing minors,” which the filing says was “common knowledge.” The suit claims that school district was negligent in allowing the alleged sexual assault to continue and that the district’s actions amounted to a “cover-up.”

From the Berkeley Gazette, Dec. 16, 1979. Credit: Newspapers.com

In a separate incident over a decade later, Borgfeldt was charged with sexually molesting a 12-year-old student, according to an article in the Berkeley Gazette. On Dec. 1, 1979, Borgfeldt took the boy on a private field trip that ended at Borgfeldt’s home in El Cerrito, where police said he made sexual advances, according to the Gazette article. The parents filed a complaint against the school district. (This incident was not mentioned in the lawsuit.) Borgfeldt also taught at Franklin Elementary, Cragmont Elementary and Willard Middle School.

Four years later, Borgfeldt was still employed at BUSD, according to the Gazette.

Borgfeldt could not be reached for comment.

In the second lawsuit, filed May 16 and first reported on by the Daily Cal, a former student claimed that Mr. Hardwick, a discipline officer at Malcolm X Elementary, had abused him and other students in “an isolated basement room” where he oversaw detention. According to the suit, the abuse began when the former student was a 5th grader at Malcolm X in 1995 and continued on multiple occasions throughout the school year.

The suit claims that Hardwick began by massaging the student’s shoulders. Eventually, according to the suit, he began rubbing the 5th grader’s genitals and performed oral sex on him against his will.

Hardwick is now deceased.

According to the suit, BUSD staff “ignored clear and obvious signs” of abuse, including complaints by other parents, and did not report the alleged abuse. In doing so, the school district failed to implement its own policies aimed at preventing sexual assault, the suit says. The suit notes that the officer had “unsupervised access to young children in a basement room.”

“My hope is that [the suit] draws attention to these problems both within the district and more broadly,” said Rachel Liebert, an attorney with the law firm Slater Slater and Schulman LLP, which specializes in sex abuse cases in California and filed the suit on behalf of the former Malcolm X student.

Liebert said districts should make sure that a child is never left alone with an adult in a situation like this, and that district staff comply with mandatory reporting laws.

A limited-time “lookback window,” which temporarily eliminated the statute of limitations for victims of childhood sexual abuse in California to come forward and file civil suits against their alleged abusers, is closing in December. Childhood sexual abuse lawsuits have been flooding institutions like the Catholic Church and Boy Scouts of America as the end of the “lookback window” approaches.

The window only applies to those over 40, while those under 40 can continue to file complaints of childhood sex abuse.

Last year, BUSD faced two other lawsuits alleging that Matthew Bissell, a chemistry and physical education teacher, abused Rachel Phillips from 2000 to 2003, another student from 1997 to 1998, and other students over the course of his tenure at the school. Bissell’s teaching credential was revoked in March. And the district settled a case with a former student who claimed that BUSD failed to protect her after she was sexually assaulted by another student in 2019.

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly described the sexual abuse that the 5th grade student allegedly experienced at Malcolm X.

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