WB&S Partner John Winer quoted in The Daily Californian: “Our goal is to change policies so that complaints are taken more seriously,” Winer said.
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by Gabe Classon
Berkeley High School alumna Rachel Phillips has filed a lawsuit against her former teacher and Berkeley Unified School District, or BUSD, alleging she was sexually assaulted and harassed two decades ago.
In a complaint filed in June, obtained by Berkeleyside, Phillips alleged former BUSD teacher Matthew Bissell inappropriately touched and sexualized her from 1999 to 2003. At the time, Phillips was a minor, the lawsuit notes.
According to Berkeleyside, Bissell resigned from his BUSD position earlier this year amid an investigation that substantiated the claims Phillips had made against him.
Bissell declined to comment on the specifics of the case through his attorney Alison Crane. Crane said in an email Bissell denies any allegations of inappropriate conduct and “looks forward” to addressing the allegations in court.
Phillips alleged that Bissell abused his authority to exploit her “physically and emotionally,” her attorney John Winer said in an email.
Winer further alleged BUSD either had poor record-keeping or had covered up allegations of Bissell’s sexual misconduct. The district, Winer alleged, had failed to fulfill its duty to protect Phillips.
“She complained to her coach, and she complained to a teacher, and she complained to the head of the athletic department,” Winer alleged. “Nothing was done to protect her.”
Winer also alleged Bissell’s inappropriate conduct went beyond any one student or time frame, saying he spoke to students and parents who repeatedly complained about Bissell’s “creepy” conduct. However, Winer said the district said it could only find records of two complaints.
Winer added approximately 30 people have contacted his firm about filing cases against Bissell and BUSD. In January, Winer expects to file another suit with seven plaintiffs who allege abuse from Bissell over an 18 year period. Most plaintiffs were 14 or 15 at the time of the alleged abuse, he noted.
Citing the privacy rights of students and employees, BUSD spokesperson Trish McDermott declined to comment on the lawsuit, although she emphasized generally the district investigates alleged wrongdoing and makes its decisions based on fact.
“The emotional and physical safety of every student is a top priority for the district,” McDermott added in an email.
Winer, however, alleged Bissell’s protection was prioritized above that of students and that Bissell has not been adequately punished. Bissell allegedly continued to earn a living by substitute teaching at other schools after he resigned from BUSD, while Phillips has suffered greatly from his alleged abuse, Winer added.
Damages to Phillips relating to future therapy costs, emotional distress, lost wages due to stunted career prospects and other claims could be worth over $1 million, Winer said. In addition to personal restitution, Winer said they are seeking changes to how BUSD handles sexual misconduct allegations.
“Our goal is to change policies so that complaints are taken more seriously,” Winer said.