In February of 2021, Matthew Bissell, a former chemistry teacher at Berkeley High School (BHS), quietly resigned after signing a separation agreement with Superintendent Brent Stephens.
After 24 years of teaching at BHS, Bissell left and was able to resign with over 25 accusations of sexual assault.
BHS alumni Rachel Phillips, a survivor of Bissell’s harassment, sued Bissell and BUSD in June of 2021.
On March 22, Bissell’s teaching credentials were revoked.
The loss of his credentials is an important step in the repercussions of his actions, but it also brings up questions around BHS’s policies.
The loss of Bissell’s teaching credentials means he is unable to be a public school teacher.
“It’s certainly important for high school students everywhere that he’s no longer able to be a teacher. Particularly to the type of female students who he would target and sexually harass,” said Jon Winer, Phillip’s attorney for the Phillips v. BUSD case. “There’s no indication he ever stopped doing that while he was at Berkeley High. And there would be no indication he would stop doing it in the future because he got away with it [for] so long at Berkeley High. He got away with it for 20 years.”
Though the revocation of Bissell’s teaching credentials is an important step in holding him accountable for his actions and in bringing justice to those harmed, it does not solve the broader problem of his case being swept under the rug.
“[Revoked] teaching credentials doesn’t solve the Bissell problem,” Winer said. “If somebody gets found to be a sex offender, then that has consequences. It seems ludicrous that Berkeley High can’t even manage to fire somebody whose teaching credentials are removed within a year because they’re so dangerous. That to me speaks volumes about Berkeley High.”
Bissell was able to resign from BHS only two years ago, even though there had been at least 15 years of students going to the administration with ultimately unsuccessful allegations against him.
Students went to multiple principals and the athletic director, but, despite all the complaints, Bissell was still allowed to teach at BHS for longer.
“Even then he was able to leave and resign, which I think was a terrible mistake. I think he needed to be fired,” Winer said. “He molested and abused girls at Berkeley High for all those years and got away with it, without Berkeley High ever really doing anything about it. To me, that’s the problem.”
However, the process of firing a teacher can be difficult and expensive. According to Jasmina Viteskic, the Title IX coordinator at BHS, firing a teacher can take a long time, and the process includes many hurdles.
“You can’t just fire a teacher. [A principal] can’t come into school tomorrow and be like, ‘You are out.’ That’s not a thing,” Viteskic said. “Getting rid of tenured teachers is according to the California Education Code and [teacher’s] contracts. It usually involves a hearing and would have a panel that would solicit evidence and witness their testimony. That can last for a long time.”
Though Bissell was able to remain teaching at BHS for over 15 years, the school has implemented a number of policies to stop similar cases from happening. Viteskic elaborated on the current policies in place and described the process of hiring a new teacher.
“When you’re hired into BHS, you go through a series of onboarding training and part of that training is on sexual harassment,” Viteskic said. “All of the employees that come into Berkeley Unified have to undergo those trainings. … There’s also continual training throughout the year on sexual harassment and Title IX, [which] we refresh on every year.”
Winer believes a necessary step in preventing cases like Bissell’s from happening in the future is stronger communication from the administration.
“The message must be sent to everyone, to the entire community, that if you’re going to sexually harass somebody, you’re not going to get away with it,” Winer said. “There’s really only one way to say it, and that is to let the whole school know when there’s an incident. You don’t have to reveal the victim, but let the whole school know [it happened], and there is a fear process in place.”