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After Burgmann and Bissell, District Must Better Fight Sexual Harm

The two cases prove that action from the district regarding sexual harm is urgently needed, and BUSD must seek to mend the broken trust between students and admin.

Sexual harassment has long had deep, twisted roots in Berkeley High School (BHS) student culture. The constant pattern of harm is revealed about every four years in a breaking point incident of sexual assault at the school. At the beginning of this recurring cycle, students are galvanized into making a united demand for change, followed by the district promising to make real improvements; then after the four years are up, the cycle restarts. From Team 15 to the Barbecue Club to the graffiti on the bathroom wall, students’ cries for action are clearly not adequately being addressed. In order to end this cycle of violence, the district must work to prevent sexual harm in the community by disseminating information on Title IX student resources and providing widespread K-12 consent education.

Two weeks ago, yet another horrible story of sexual harm emerged; Liam Burgmann, a BHS graduate from the class of 2021, was charged with 20 criminal counts, including the possession of over 600 images of child pornography. A few of the images pictured children as young as three. Burgmann, the former captain of the BHS debate team, also allegedly hacked into multiple girls’ Snapchat accounts to illegally distribute sexually explicit content and blackmail them. 

The Burgmann arrest came a month after Rachel Phillips — a BHS alumma of 2003 — filed a lawsuit against her former chemistry teacher Matthew Bissell for sexual harassment, and the case could not have been handled more differently. Phillips claims she reached out to multiple BHS adults, describing Bissell’s behavior, and nothing happened until she sued Berkeley Unified School District (BUSD) over 20 years later. This lack of action follows a clear pattern, as it was revealed that multiple other students over the past 20 years had filed reports against Bissell only to have them swept under the rug as well. In contrast, within a year of the reports on Burgmann’s alleged actions, he was arrested. 

Part of the disparity in the response to the two cases may be attributed to the fact that the Bissell case went through the Title IX process, since Bissell worked for the district, whereas the Burgmann case was passed on to the police as he no longer attended BHS. However, the question still stands as to why Title IX procedures at BHS failed so clearly to hold Bissell accountable, when the Burgmann case was resolved in a matter of months. The contrast is best explained by a lack of accountability for those in positions of power and a failure to prioritize the voices of students in these situations. 

While it’s important that the district provide better resources for students to report harm, they must also acknowledge the trust placed in staff by students. If that trust is broken — such as in the Bissell case — the administration must deal with the ramifications and provide alternate routes for student protection. This could take the form of student support groups, better advertisement of school resources surrounding reporting and healing from sexual trauma, and more transparency around the handling of such cases. 

Despite the discrepancy in the handling of the two cases, it’s also important to recognize that they are not isolated incidents. The reality is, incidents of sexual harm aren’t only about sexual gratification, they’re also about power. Although the Burgmann and Bissell cases may differ in the details, they are both rooted in a harmful sense of privilege and power. While Bissell’s actions are a clear example of the misuse of power, this same power imbalance can be seen in the Burgmann cases. As an older teenage boy targeting younger girls, his sense of power in the situation allowed him to feel comfortable while so disgustingly violating their privacy. 

If the district truly wants to change this culture, they have to give students the tools to fight back and reverse these power imbalances. Students must be better educated in cybersecurity to prevent situations such as the Burgmann case. They must also be better informed on how to report sexual harassment to administration and what that entails. If students better understood what reporting means, it’s more likely they would feel comfortable coming forward. 

Furthermore, consent education should be implemented district-wide starting in elementary school, as well as on a regular basis, so that children and teens are given the tools to draw clear boundaries and understand how to engage in safe and consensual relationships. 

We live in a culture that perpetuates cycles of sexual violence. Without a district-wide effort to educate the community and increase transparency, these cycles will continue to exist in our schools. We as students deserve to be in learning environments where we can feel truly safe, and that cannot be possible without real and continued efforts by the district to protect our community.