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Sometimes the biggest bully at school is the teacher. Or the coach.

That’s the charge made a group of parents who took their complaints of abuse to the San Diego County Grand Jury.

On Thursday, parents met with San Diego Unified School District Superintendent Cindy Marten and law enforcement officials to discuss ways they could work together to close gaps in the system that allow abuse to go unpunished.

“When it’s just you, complaining all by yourself, people just call you a nut,” said Sally Smith, a longtime parent activist. When she complained about battery by her daughter’s teacher at Serra High School in 2010, she said she was sent in circles, from the school to the city police. No one wanted to investigate.

“It’s very frustrating, most parents just give up,” Smith said.

Soon after taking over as schools chief in July, Marten invited parents to join a focus group to address child abuse within the school district.

Marten told parents and law enforcement officials Thursday that they all need to work together to improve current investigation and reporting procedures when allegations are made against school employees or volunteers.

Representatives from the city attorney’s office, district attorney’s office, San Diego Police Department, Child Protective Services and school police acknowledged that holes in the system can allow abusers to go unpunished.

Parents say children are being abused by teachers and other adults and current policies are inadequate. Charges range from negligence to full-fledged verbal and physical abuse, including sexual abuse.

And parents say the problem isn’t just the abusers, it’s school administrators who fail to report or properly investigate complaints.

That was one of the criticisms leveled in the grand jury report, released in May.

In 2007, John Kyujoon Lee, a teacher at the School for Creative and Performing Arts, was convicted of statutory rape of a student. The student’s lawyer, John Gomez, said his client brought a civil lawsuit to force districts to pay attention to abuse of students by teachers.

“During this case, we were shocked to learn that the district does virtually nothing to prevent teacher-student sexual abuse,” Gomez said. In 2009, San Diego Unified was found liable for $650,000 of the $1.25 million in damages awarded to the student because adults had reasonable suspicions about Lee, but none reported them despite a mandate to do so.

Judy Neufeld-Fernandez said her son was verbally abused by his teacher at Hardy Elementary. Susan Hopps-Tatum’s daughter experienced similar emotional abuse from the same teacher.

Neufeld-Fernandez, who worked as a substitute at Hardy, said she complained to the principal about the teacher’s behavior, and eventually to the district. During the process, Hopps-Tatum and Neufeld-Fernandez learned they were among nine families who had filed complaints against the same teacher. The case led to the grand jury investigation. The teacher is still on the staff at Hardy.

“I don’t know the history of that particular case,” Marten said Thursday. “The past administration has solved that case.  I’m not going to second-guess administrative decisions that were made by people that were doing their jobs at the time.”

It can be an arduous task to fire a teacher, even with evidence of abuse, due to tenure and teachers union policies.

The parents want the school district to take abuse allegations seriously and to implement a set of guidelines that will allow outside investigations. “No one is taking jurisdiction,” Neufeld-Fernandez said. “San Diego Unified has no training on sexual predation.”

The grand jury report includes similar recommendations:

San Diego Unified School District should develop a policy to address adult-to-student bullying, harassment or intimidation, whether physical or emotional, by employees or volunteers.

The district should revise its appeal and review process to forbid Area Superintendents or other administrators from reviewing their own original findings and recommendations.

The district should provide timely and continuing feedback to those who file complaints.

Marten responded to the recommendations in a letter, disputing many of the report’s findings, including one that said district administrators reviewed their own decisions.

She said the district already has a policy to address adult-to-child bullying, and that there are already procedures in place to respond to parents who file a complaint, but the district is legally restrained from revealing confidential employee information.

But Marten is acting on other recommendations.

She said her goal with the focus group is to “engage stakeholders and create a broad public agency coalition to create consensus for best practices for investigation of complaints alleging adult-to-child bullying and other forms of child abuse.”

Marten said Thursday that training principals to identify abuse is key.

“I’m spending a lot of energy and time on leadership development. The office of leadership development is meant to invest in my site leaders, in my school principals, to understand when you have a teacher who is being emotionally abusive to a child that’s not tolerated for a minute in this system,” Marten said.

The group plans to meet again in a few weeks to determine whether changes to the penal code are needed in order to prosecute certain types of abuse that takes place in schools, such as mental anguish. Chief Deputy District Attorney Dan Lamborn said he would research such cases to see whether legislative action should be sought.

Smith is hopeful that Marten and her staff will take child abuse in schools seriously.

“I’ve been fighting this bureaucracy for a long time. The response from San Diego Unified gives me hope that more child-protection measures are going to be put in place by this new superintendent. Superintendent Marten is facing this head on. She’s not going to sweep it under the carpet and say it’s not happening.”

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Christie Ritter

Christie Ritter is a freelance writer for Voice of San Diego, author of four books and a former newspaper reporter. She is a graduate of Clairemont High,...

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