The San Diego County Office of Education adopted a new policy this week that governs boundaries between adults and students following a Voice of San Diego investigation that highlighted how many districts lack such policies despite numerous cases of abuse and child grooming by predatory educators across the county.
The new policy will guide the County Office of Education’s staff, students, volunteers and community members in recognizing and maintaining appropriate boundaries with students and provide guidelines on what type of behavior should be reported to authorities. It will also serve as a model for other school districts across the county to potentially adopt.
As of now, the policy directly applies only to schools under the County Office of Education’s purview, which include juvenile court and community schools and some schools serving students with special needs.
VOSD reported last month that some districts across the county, like San Diego Unified School District and Sweetwater Union High School District, have paid out millions of dollars to students abused by educators who argued the schools did not have sufficient protocols in place to protect them.
The lack of guidance has also created confusion among educators who are state-mandated reporters on what signs of child abuse need to be reported to police or Child Welfare Services.
The County Office of Education’s new policy lays out what actions are prohibited between adults and students. It instructs employees to not intrude on a student’s physical and emotional boundaries unless the intrusion is necessary to serve a legitimate education purpose.
Those boundaries include an employee showing favoritism toward a student, mismanaging feelings of frustration toward a student, failing to recognize that an employee is not a peer, parent, therapist or friend to a student and inquiring about overly sensitive or personal topics without a legitimate educational purpose for doing so.
Staff are also instructed to avoid being alone with individual students out of view of others, inviting or allowing students to visit their homes, remaining on campus with students alone or visiting a student’s home.
Some of the specific professional adult-student boundaries violations include:
- Singling out a particular student for personal attention and friendship beyond the professional staff-student relationship
- For non-guidance/counseling staff, encouraging students to confide their personal or family problems and/or relationships
- Exchanging personal gifts, cards or letters with an individual student for which it is directly or implicitly suggest that a student is to say or do something in return
- Socializing or spending time with students including activities such as beverages, meals or movies
- Transporting students in a personal vehicle in a non-emergency situation and without proper written authorization forms in advance
Staff are also instructed not to contact students for personal purposes outside of school by phone, letter, texts or social media including “friending” and “following” students on social media unless the social media page is dedicated to legitimate school business. If they want to contact students for educational purposes, they must loop in another adult, like a parent or the school principal. When a coach or club adviser wants to text students, they must message all team members at once, unless it involves a student’s private academic or medical issues, in which case they must loop in the school principal.
A February investigation by VOSD revealed that fewer than 10 of the 43 school districts, including the County Office of Education, had clear policies on appropriate electronic communications between educators and students.
The policy also recognizes the state’s mandated reporting law and tells employees that if they observe misconduct or have knowledge of another employee violating boundaries outlined in the policy, they should make a report to the county’s child protective services.
Music Watson, chief of staff and spokeswoman for the County Office of Education, said the board began drafting the policy in May. Watson said the office’s legal services team reviewed existing policies from other districts like Redlands Unified School District and San Francisco Unified School District and adapted them for San Diego.
The board voted to unanimously to adopt the policy Wednesday night.
San Diego County Board of Education President Paulette Donnellon said that it was important to the agency’s leadership to address appropriate adult relationships with students.
“We want to make sure there are tools in place to clearly define boundaries and protect students and teachers alike. This policy will help students feel protected and parents and guardians feel confident that their children are in a safe environment,” Donnellon said.
Watson said the policy was enacted faster than usual because the board felt it was important to have it in place before students return for the school year next month.