CA assembly member pursues legal change following allegations of Berkeley High School sexual misconduct

Photo of Berkeley High School
Caroline Lobel/Staff
A Berkeley High School teacher resigned following a sexual misconduct case. California Assemblymember Buffy Wicks is now pursuing legislative change in response.

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A Berkeley High School teacher resigned earlier this year after allegations of continued sexual misconduct, which Berkeley Unified School District, or BUSD, allegedly knew about for 15 years. In response, State Assemblymember Buffy Wicks is pursuing legislative change to protect students.

An amendment to the California Public Records Act was first proposed by Berkeley City Councilmember Terry Taplin in a letter to Wicks and State Assemblymember Mia Bonta. The letter recommends requiring local agencies to release personnel files of individuals who have sustained sexual misconduct allegations after an investigation takes place.

Taplin’s letter prompted Wicks to consider pursuing such an amendment, according to Wicks’ spokesperson Erin Ivie.

“There was clearly a failure here, and it’s critical that we identify at what point(s) in the process that failure happened,” Wicks said in an email. “These failures can’t happen, especially when it comes to our children.”

Buffy Wicks

Wicks’ office is currently still looking into which changes should be proposed where, Ivie noted. They are in contact with council members, legal experts, community and education leaders and trauma-informed legal counsel.

Issues with current laws were brought to light when former BUSD teacher Matthew Bissell resigned after sexual assault allegations against him had been substantiated, as first reported by Berkeleyside.

BUSD only released Bissell’s disciplinary records under the threat of litigation, according to Taplin’s letter.

The letter emphasizes the rights of students, parents and community members to be made aware of sexual assault allegations against an employee of a public agency, as well as what the agency did to discipline them.

Further, the letter stresses the importance of the California Public Records Act and the California Education Code being more explicit about the expectations from school districts in sexual misconduct cases.

Councilmember Sophie Hahn added that while the privacy of public employees should be protected, releasing records to the public concerning sexual assault is essential for student safety.

“We need to push BUSD to provide the transparency and information people need to keep themselves and their students safe,” Hahn said.

Hahn believes the proposed amendment has the potential to provide a “deterrent effect,” also alleging that to date, survivors of sexual assault at Berkeley High have needed to advocate for themselves “without much support or response from administration.”

BUSD did not respond to requests to comment as of press time.

Wicks has yet to propose any specific legislation, Ivie noted. However, Wicks expressed assurances that she will investigate possible changes that will ensure a better future.

“As a legislator and mom of two girls, I’m committed to being part of getting to the bottom of where things went wrong, and considering what needs to be done to right the course for the future,” Wicks said in the email.

Contact Lydia Sidhom at [email protected], and follow her on Twitter at @SidhomLydia .