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Students across the county have come forward in recent years to share their stories of sexual harassment or abuse by teachers and other school employees.
Voice of San Diego’s ongoing investigation into misconduct allegations has relied in part on a slew of records revealing substantiated instances of school sexual misconduct across San Diego County’s 43 school districts. Those records illuminate the barriers that public schools face when handling complaints against one of their own.
The cases also reveal a lack of awareness, policy and training when it comes to officials looking for signs of educator abuse and when they follow up. VOSD has found many examples of schools where the employees have more protections than the student — and families — who’ve been harmed.
A pattern emerged.
For years, those same schools would either quietly warn an accused teacher while student complaints continued to mount, or move the teacher to another location after finding they had violated district policies. Sometimes school officials would negotiate payouts to get teachers to leave while agreeing to keep accusations under wraps.
Since VOSD began publishing its findings, numerous media organizations across the state and nation have revealed problems in their own local school districts, state education agencies and federal Title IX laws — all of which help to keep predatory teachers in K-12 classrooms.
Those investigations have inspired both local policy changes as well as state and federal investigations into mishandling of abuse complaints across the country.
Media-led investigations into educator abuse have spanned both Northern and Southern California — with notable cases at Miramonte Elementary School in the Los Angeles Unified School District, numerous high schools in the Redlands Unified School District, various K-12 public schools in San Diego County and elsewhere.
In 2017 and 2018, the Southern California News Group conducted a year-long investigation into how Redlands school officials covered up sexual misconduct by several educators who’d been accused of abusing students. The onslaught of cases led to several multimillion-dollar legal settlements.
In 2018, the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing initiated an investigation of those sexual abuse claims. Later the same year, Redlands announced significant changes to its policies and procedures that included boundaries for educators who communicated with students over text or social media platforms.
The California School Board Association, which provides guidance to a majority of school districts in the state, adopted its own adult-student boundary policy last month to provide language and guidance to school officials on how to address grooming behavior that experts say often precede the type of abuse highlighted by VOSD and the Southern California News Group.
Many educators across the state could soon face sweeping, stringent restrictions on how they interact with students both on and off campus.
In recent months, increased coverage of abuse in schools has spurred national attention from school districts, community members and the U.S Department of Education.
In July 2018, the Chicago Tribune reported on the Chicago Public School district’s failure to protect students from sexual abuse and assault, drawing from police data, public and confidential records and interviews with students. The reporters revealed the ineffectiveness of the district’s background checks, as well as the failure to report child abuse cases and failure to disclose to other districts that past employees had resigned due to sexual abuse and harassment.
The U.S. Department of Education on Thursday announced that it had reached a resolution agreement with Chicago Public Schools that will require significant structural and procedural changes to protect students from sexual assault and abuse. The Office for Civil Rights concluded that, for years, the district’s management, handling and oversight of complaints of student-on-student and adult-on-student sexual harassment violated Title IX.
The Office for Civil Rights is also investigating hundreds of other schools for claims of improper handling of Title IX complaints.
In May 2019, the New York Times brought national attention to the issue when it reported that schools are less likely to be prepared to handle Title IX complaints of sexual harassment and abuse than colleges and universities. The report outlines new Title IX rules proposed by Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos that have prompted concerns from K-12 school officials. They complain that the regulations could actually limit the ways in which they respond to sexual assault complaints.
And last month, the Arizona Republic and Phoenix-based KJZZ revealed that educators in Arizona are disciplined for sexual misconduct at a higher rate than for any other offense — about 40 every year. Yet they go largely unpunished thanks to a variety of loopholes and delays by the Arizona State Board of Education.
Following the investigation, Luke Narducci, the president of the Arizona State Board of Education, said he would ask lawmakers this session to approve a list of reforms and close the system’s loopholes.
“The most significant of these reforms would give the board the authority to investigate and take disciplinary action against student teachers, coaches and noncertified teachers,” he wrote. “Currently, the state does not have this ability. This loophole allows these individuals to evade disciplinary action and move from school to school without consequence.”
Similarly, VOSD has found that California is handling more misconduct cases than ever, causing the average abuse investigation to take two years to complete.