Playing field at La Jolla Recreation Center. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

San Diego is at a crossroads regarding sexual assault in its schools.

Recent media reports have exposed the need for a countywide solution to an ever-growing problem. We must remove “investigating” of sexual assault from school officials and place it squarely where it legally belongs — the San Diego Police Department — with the goal of establishing clear guidelines that verify and prevent abuse in the future.

Sadly, that’s not been the practice. At least three women have come forward in recent months to say they reported forms of unwanted touching by a former La Jolla High teacher, but San Diego Unified claims the records of those complaints do not appear in either the school district or police files.

A decade ago, the same district was hit with a $650,000 judgment for failing to report to higher authorities an ongoing relationship between a teacher and a student. On appeal, the district argued that it was not mandated to report reasonable suspicions of child abuse and lost.

So how can we best address these types of assaults in our schools?

For starters, the county social services department and regional law enforcement agencies should get together and clarify some of the jurisdictional confusion by defining what constitutes a proper investigation. They should also identify the responsible agency outside the school district to conduct it.

Ideally, this type of interagency collaborative would be housed either under the San Diego County District Attorney’s Office or the San Diego City Police Department rather than the school district. Similar and successful models have been established here for human trafficking and elder abuse.

By reporting to San Diego police, calls by victim’s parents and mandated reporters would not be waylaid or ignored. Evidence would be gathered quickly.

Sex crimes demand a highly professional response, and investigations can be ruined when victims and witnesses are interviewed by well-meaning but untrained people. Allowing schools to conduct their own investigation could alert perpetrators, allowing them time to hide or destroy evidence. It could also allow district staff time to perform damage control by protecting their own reputation and that of the perpetrator.

The collaborative should also:

 Maintain crime records for every school in the county that are web accessible to all citizens and provide an ombudsman for parents and victims who can give feedback on their assault investigation.

 Help all school districts in the county develop uniform practices and policies in prevention training, mandated reporting, and compliance with the Child Abuse and Neglect Reporting Act and Title 9.

 Provide training on how to spot boundary-breaking behaviors that are immoral and dangerous but may not rise to the level of prosecution.

Statistically, we should be alarmed and galvanized into action. Nearly 10 percent of students in grades 8 through 11 say they’ve experienced some form of unwanted sexual attention — everything from jokes and name-calling to full molestation — while at school, according to one nationwide survey. At the same time, only 11 percent of educators, when surveyed, said they would report the sexual abuse of a student to authorities.

When educators are properly informed of the telltale signs of grooming, predation and abuse, and are held accountable to their legal duty to report, we will begin to see a shift away from the status quo toward the active protection of kids.

The successful prevention of abuse and prosecution of predators within our systems will set a new tone in schools that benefits all.

Judy Neufeld-Fernandez is an educator who served on San Diego Unified’s child abuse prevention focus group. See anything in there we should fact check? Tell us what to check out here.

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