A student using her phone. / Photo by Megan Wood

Student victims have in recent years sued both the San Diego Unified and Sweetwater Union High school districts, claiming the districts did not have proper policies or training protocols in place to protect them from sexual abuse by predatory teachers. The districts and their insurance providers paid out millions in legal settlements to those students.

Neither district had policies then outlining appropriate adult-student boundaries on issues like being alone with a student out of view of others, giving students rides home from school or isolating students for personal attention, though San Diego Unified has a prior protocol on “friending” district students and contacting students in off-hours on district and personal phones.

Years later, the districts still haven’t adopted clear, comprehensive guidelines. Both districts are, however, members of the California School Board Association, a non-profit education association that provides sample policies and recommended protocol language to more than 90 percent of school districts statewide.

In July, CSBA told its member districts it had adopted a new board policy for its members on appropriate adult-student boundaries, including language on suggested boundaries between students and staff, sexual harassment and disciplinary action for teachers that cross the line.

The CSBA policy is not binding on any school district, but it could provide a template for San Diego Unified, Sweetwater or the Poway Unified School District to adopt their own policies in the future – and potentially avoid future lawsuits. Spokespeople for those districts said nothing is imminent, though they’re reviewing the association’s model policy or a similar one recently adopted by a county agency.

Troy Flint, a spokesman for CSBA, wrote in an email to VOSD that though much of the new guidelines was included in existing association policies, the CSBA decided to develop a specific, standalone policy because of “an uptick in requests for guidance from members, the changing nature of adult-student interactions as driven by the internet and social media, and a number of incidents where appropriate boundaries were not observed.”

As a result, more teachers and school employees across the state may soon have more restrictions on the ways they interact with their students. They could now be facing more specific restrictions against social media and text message communications with students, for instance.

VOSD’s ongoing investigation into sexual misconduct in public schools has revealed numerous cases in which texts and social media messages between students and teachers have fueled teacher misconduct, and others that illuminate how child grooming by predatory educators is often a precursor to abuse in schools.

Yet, VOSD has found, those teachers are rarely removed from their jobs for grey area, non-criminal actions that could violate a student’s boundaries, like text messages late at night or rides home from school without an adult’s approval.

Public school districts across the San Diego region overwhelmingly lack guidelines outlining appropriate adult-student boundaries. If districts enact policies, they could change the expectations of professional conduct for school employees.

Following CSBA’s decision to adopt its own guidelines, teachers from Sweetwater, San Diego Unified and other schools across the state could soon be barred from a range of behaviors that experts say can often lead to inappropriate educator-student relationships.

In addition to barring clear impropriety, districts could prohibit teachers from boundary-blurring behaviors like “friending” or messaging students on social media, including any media designed to eliminate records of communications like Snapchat – without the prior approval of a principal or designee.

They could also be barred from transporting students in their personal vehicles without prior authorization, singling out a student for personal attention and friendship, and giving gifts or nicknames to individual students — which experts often identify as signs of child grooming when combined. Teachers will also be restricted from the following:

  • Initiating inappropriate physical contact
  • Being alone with a student outside of the view of others
  • Visiting a student’s home or inviting a student to visit the employee’s home without parent/guardian consent
  • Addressing a student in an overly familiar manner, such as by using a term of endearment
  • Socializing or spending time with students outside of school-sponsored events, except as participants in community activities
  • Sending or accompanying students on personal errands unrelated to any legitimate educational purpose
  • Encouraging students to confide their personal or family problems and/or relationships
  • Disclosing personal, family, or other private matters to students or sharing personal secrets with students

As written, CSBA’s policy says employees who engage in conduct in violation of the policy, including retaliation against a person who reports the violation, shall be subject to discipline, up to and including dismissal.

Though CSBA recommends its members draft a similar policy related to appropriate student-teacher interaction, it will not require districts to do so, a spokesman said.

For those that choose to enact the policy, the association recommends those board policies set clear expectations for employee conduct, including expectations that employees report any improper conduct they observe or have knowledge of, according to its July newsletter.

“Districts should notify staff of applicable district policies and regulations and consider providing professional development to further educate staff about expectations in regard to interactions with students,” it reads.

It says schools must provide parents and guardians with the district’s code of conduct on staff-student interactions at the beginning of the school year, and that it must also be posted on each school’s website, or the district website if the school does not have one.

“Understanding the boundaries of appropriate staff–student interactions is a challenge, and an area in which the governance team and district administration can provide assistance to school staff,” it reads.

Flint said CSBA staff reviewed the state education code, other applicable law, academic research, policies in other states and best practices here in California to put together its policy.

“Drawing from this research, we developed a sample policy that reflects the needs of California schools and students as well as the educational, social and political context of the state,” he said.

Billie-Jo Grant, a researcher and evaluator at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and board member of non-profit organization Stop Educator Sexual Abuse, Misconduct and Exploitation, says she thinks it’s a good first step that CSBA put out a sample policy and she hopes it encourages school districts to implement policies that are as detailed in identifying grooming interactions.

“Right now a lot of school districts don’t have that,” Grant said. “The next step is to make sure people know it’s there. Even if it’s written down, that doesn’t mean folks are aware. Policy without accountability doesn’t mean much.”

She says not only do districts need to have rules in place, but also a fleshed out plan detailing who those reports go to and who is accountable and responsible for implementing a plan to discipline employees who cross the line.

Where Adult-Student Boundary Policies Are Now

Last month, the San Diego County Office of Education adopted a similar adult-student boundary policy, modeling those adopted in recent years by Redlands Unified School District and San Francisco Unified School District.

A spokeswoman from Redlands Unified told VOSD in June that the district’s goal is to lower the threshold for what employees, who are state mandated child abuse reporters, should be reported to local authorities as signs of child abuse.

Local school districts like Poway Unified and San Diego Unified say they are considering adopting an adult-student boundary policy in response to CSBA’s July recommendation.

Poway faced blowback in recent years for its handling of two teachers who sent inappropriate texts to underage students at Westview High School.

Christine Paik, a spokeswoman from Poway Unified, wrote in an email that district is reviewing the new policy in combination with the recently adopted policy by the San Diego County Office of Education as well as those from other school districts. She said it is a priority, but does not yet have a timeline for adoption.

Since language in the policy contemplates discipline that includes firing teachers who cross the line, she said, the district would need to negotiate with unions before adopting it, Paik wrote.

“But I think we can all agree that it is in our students’ best interests to have this policy (or a version of this policy) in place, so that students and their families know that they are being protected,” she wrote.

Manny Rubio, a spokesman from Sweetwater Union High School District, said district officials are looking into CSBA’s sample policy now, but the district does not have a timeline for a review or adoption. Maureen Magee, a spokeswoman from San Diego Unified says the district is reviewing the adult-student boundary police adopted by the San Diego County Office of Education.

Kayla Jiminez was a staff writer for Voice of San Diego. She covered about communities, politics and regional issues in North County as well as school...

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