‘Worst moments of my life.’ Former Berkeley High student alleges repeated abuse by teacher | #teacher | #children | #kids | #parenting | #parenting | #kids

Soon after Rachel Phillips arrived at H Building for her senior yearbook photo shoot, she felt a hug from behind. She said she quickly realized it was her chemistry teacher, the one she alleges sexually assaulted and harassed her throughout her four years at Berkeley High School.

“He finds my ear and my neck and he starts making out with the side of my face,” Phillips recalled. “He grabs my crotch and lifts me into his arms like a baby.”

In the 2003 yearbook reviewed by The Chronicle, Matthew Bissell can be seen wrapping his arms around Phillips, his mouth aimed at her neck. The yearbook caption read: “Most Likely to date a teacher.”

“It was one of the worst moments of my life,” Phillips recalled in a Zoom interview with The Chronicle on Wednesday. “I went into a really deep depression. I was self-medicating with drugs and alcohol.”

The photo culminated four years of sexual abuse and harassment at the hands of Bissell, according to a lawsuit filed by Phillips last month. From ages 14 to 17, Phillips alleged that Bissell would slap or squeeze her butt in class or on the track “nearly every day,” touch her crotch, lick or suck on her neck, kiss her neck or ear, put his tongue in her ear, reach into her pants and pull her thong underwear up, and talk about her breasts, among other inappropriate behavior.

Attempts to contact Bissell, 47, who has not been charged with a crime, were not successful.

Phillips sued Bissell and the Berkeley Unified School District, alleging negligence, sexual assault, sexual harassment, battery and gender violence, among other causes of action. In April, the district mailed a letter to Phillips concluding that the complaint she levied to them last October of alleged sexual abuse and harassment had been substantiated. The report also concluded that Bissell had engaged in “inappropriate behavior” toward multiple students “over the years.”

Phillips’ attorney John Winer said he has seven other former students as clients who attended Berkeley High between 2014 and 2018 with allegations of sexually inappropriate behavior by Bissell. They all plan to join the lawsuit, he said.

Rachel Phillips displays her 2002-03 Berkeley High School yearbook. In the yearbook photo, Phillips is pictured with her teacher Matthew Bissell hugging her and leaning in for a kiss. Phillips is suing the Berkeley Unified School District and Bissell, saying he assaulted and harassed her and that the district failed to protect her.
Leah Nash/Special to The Chronicle

Phillips said she spoke to teachers, coaches and the athletic director as a student over multiple years, but says nothing was done. Bissell, who still appeared as a science and physical education teacher on the Berkeley High School website as of Thursday afternoon, “is no longer an employee,” district spokesperson Trish McDermott said in an email to The Chronicle. She declined to answer questions about when he left his job or the circumstances, saying she could not comment on personnel matters.

“The District takes reports of sexual harassment and abuse very seriously, and we are committed to investigating those complaints as they come to us,” McDermott said in an emailed statement.

Phillips, now 36 and a landscape designer in Oregon, spoke to The Chronicle via Zoom, detailing her high school years from 1999 to 2003.

She grew up in Berkeley and Oakland. Her grandmother Arlene Slaughter became a real estate agent to help desegregate neighborhoods. Many of her clients were members of the Black Panther Party. Phillips’ aunt Frederika Slaughter married Black Panther founder Huey Newton.

Phillips said Bissell, who coached the football team at the time, introduced himself to her while she tried out for volleyball her freshman year. She was 14. She said he started tapping her on her butt as both their teams practiced outside on the track. She thought he was a “creep.”

She worked up the courage to tell coaches, a teacher and the athletic director, she said. Nothing happened.

The next year, she returned for volleyball tryouts. She recalled an alleged incident in which Bissell pulled her aside aggressively, smelled her, grazed her breasts and told her she “blossomed over the summer.”

She said she continued to tell adults at the school, but nothing happened.

Her father was diagnosed with terminal cancer when she took Bissell’s chemistry class, a mandatory course at the school. She said Bissell would groan every time she walked by his desk and that when she’d turn in a paper, he’d grab her inner thigh.

“All of this just really freaks me out to this day,” she said.

One afternoon, Bissell cornered her near the darkened hallway by the visitor’s locker room in the gym, Phillips said. She said he pulled her close, took a deep smell of her and ran his hands down her body to see how far he could go.

“It just became part of my day, squirming out of Bissell’s arms,” she said.

She started missing more school and “self-medicating” with drugs and alcohol. She went into treatment for the first time at 17. She would return to rehab a couple more times the next years.

At 19, she returned to Berkeley High to coach volleyball, as her triplet cousins were preparing to play.

“I wanted to protect them,” she said. “Basically, I body-blocked Bissell out of the gym for four more years.”

Her father died the next year. Her stepfather left. She struggled for years, in and out of sobriety.

“I was going through a lot of stuff at home at the time,” she said.

Two years ago, Phillips relapsed and had a near-fatal overdose of heroin and fentanyl. Her heart stopped for four minutes, she said.

Rachel Phillips gardens in her mother's backyard in Oregon City, Ore., on Wednesday. Phillips, who attended Berkeley High School from 1999 to 2003, is suing the Berkeley Unified School District and former chemistry teacher and football coach Matthew Bissell. The suit says Bissell assaulted and harassed her and that the district failed to protect her despite repeated complaints.
Rachel Phillips gardens in her mother’s backyard in Oregon City, Ore., on Wednesday. Phillips, who attended Berkeley High School from 1999 to 2003, is suing the Berkeley Unified School District and former chemistry teacher and football coach Matthew Bissell. The suit says Bissell assaulted and harassed her and that the district failed to protect her despite repeated complaints.
Leah Nash/Special to The Chronicle

It was last year, as she pieced her life together, that a Berkeley High yearbook adviser contacted her. The woman had seen the 2003 photo of her and was disturbed.

“It was the first adult to say that’s not OK,” Phillips said. “I put on adult glasses for the first time and it all flooded to me that this was so wrong.”

She said she filed a report with Berkeley police. A spokesperson said the Police Department could not comment on cases involving juveniles.

In July 2020, the district learned of an Instagram account with followers that were current and former Berkeley High students. Members raised “several concerns” over “Bissell’s alleged inappropriate behavior with students,” Samantha Tobias-Espinosa, assistant superintendent of human resources, wrote in her April letter to Phillips.

“Concerns ranged from inappropriate comments regarding clothing worn by female students to alleged sexual battery (i.e., ‘accidental’ touching of female students’ butts, hips and waists),” Tobias-Espinosa wrote. The Instagram account, along with complaints filed by other current and former students, she said, prompted the district to retain an outside attorney to conduct an investigation.

Investigators reached out to Phillips and she made similar allegations in her complaint with the district.

Months passed before she received the April letter —“There is sufficient evidence to substantiate your allegations against Mr. Bissell,” Tobias-Espinosa wrote in her letter to Phillips.

“Both former and current BHS students have corroborated one another in sharing multiple instances of inappropriate conduct committed by Mr. Bissell,” Tobias-Espinosa concluded. “The District has determined these witnesses to be credible based on their behavior during their interviews (i.e., body language, ability to easily answer the Investigator’s questions, the similarity between their stories, and the fact that some of them confided in BHS teachers who described these instances nearly identical to how the students described them to the Investigator).”

She said Bissell’s conduct to Phillips and others was “both severe and pervasive.”

“It felt like I was heard for the first time,” Phillips said, her voice cracking. “I was so pissed that they haven’t figured out a way to make Berkeley High a safe place for its students — period.”

Rebecca Levenson, who has seen three children graduate from Berkeley High, said Bissell’s dismissal was a long time coming. Levenson said the group Berkeley High Stop Harassing started from her kitchen years ago, and through her work with the group she learned Bissell had previously been put on leave after similar allegations in 2015, but was reinstated.

She said the old district administration created a “horrific, horrific, horrific history” at the school.

“Berkeley High’s failure in these cases is outstanding. I’ve never seen anything worse in my career,” Phillips’ attorney Winer said. “There’s never been anybody able to hang on this long committing this many abusive acts and with people complaining about it.”

Phillips, who is now engaged, hopes her speaking out will encourage others.

“People don’t always stand up,” she said, “and sometimes you have to be the one to speak.”

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