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The San Diego County District Attorney’s office announced Thursday that it’s launching an online reporting tool for students, parents or school employees to report abuse in schools, as well as a task force to handle complaints.
The move addresses some of the systemic shortcomings that have been revealed as part of a two-year Voice of San Diego investigation into harassment and abuse in San Diego County’s public schools.
The new set of independent eyes on complaints from the public, District Attorney Stephan said, will allow her office to hold school districts and employees accountable and keep students safe.
Stephan said the task force was created to eliminate deficiencies in reporting. She said a high priority of the task force will be to hold employees who fail to follow the state’s mandated reporting law.
“If any person – a parent, a student – is concerned that their report didn’t go anywhere, slipped through the cracks or they didn’t see any action taken, they can contact us and we will seriously look into it and follow the threat,” she said.
In several cases VOSD uncovered, students said complaints of abuse or harassment were downplayed or ignored. Several women, for example, told VOSD that their complaints that they were groped and inappropriately touched by a La Jolla High School physics teacher went ignored. That teacher’s credential has since been revoked by the state in the wake of VOSD’s reporting on his case.
In other instances, school officials failed to comply with the state’s mandated reporting law, which requires school employees and other people who work with children and believe a child might have been harmed to report their suspicions to local law enforcement (school police departments don’t count) or Child Welfare Services, regardless of whether there’s concrete evidence that a crime took place.
An Independent Tracking System for Child Abuse Reporting
The district attorney’s office will host a new website to track complaints about suspected abuse in schools independently of school districts.
Those complaints will also be reviewed by a newly implemented Student Safety in School Systems task force. Specific reports of child abuse will be referred to law enforcement for investigation. Cases in which a mandated reporter failed to report suspected child abuse will be handled by the DA’s office.
Stephan said abuse reports will be cross-referenced with Child Welfare Services, local police and school districts to see if complaints at each agency were documented and handled appropriately.
The reporting tool will not serve as a substitute for a mandated reporter’s duty to report abuse, Stephan said.
Not much happens now to teachers or other school employees who fail to report abuse, VOSD found earlier this year.
In one case, Sweetwater Union High School District officials received an email with detailed information about ongoing sexual abuse of a student by a teacher, but did nothing. In another, La Jolla High School officials believed a teacher’s touching of a student rose to the level of criminal behavior, but don’t appear to have called in Child Protective Services or San Diego police.
Since at least 2002, San Diego County has not prosecuted any failure-to-report cases, Stephan told VOSD in May. Stephan said at the time that neither her office nor the city attorney’s office has ever received or prosecuted a complaint of a mandated reporter failing to report child abuse.
Regional School Safety in School Systems Task Force
The new task force will review and respond to reports student abuse in all 42 school districts across the county made through the website.
Deputy District Attorney Stephen Marquardt will lead the task force.
“If a student, parent, it might be some employee at the school or it might be a friend of the family – no one is excluded here – this is to give everybody access and everyone a voice so that everyone feels confident that they can go directly to an agency that is willing to help them,” Marquardt said.
Stephan said establishing the task force is not a reaction or a criticism, but a proactive way to close gaps and process access, and noted her office has prosecuted two big cases this year alone involving abuse by teachers that resulted in prison sentences. She said meetings with Black Men and Women United were key to developing the task force and online reporting tool.
In September, Stephan sent a letter to every superintendent in the county outlining her office’s plan and seeking feedback.
The San Diego Unified School District established its own Child Abuse Task Force in September.
“It is just a reality that in every group, there are bad apples and they must be eliminated,” Stephan said. “Teachers go into teaching and coaching because they care about our kids. But there are a few bad apples.”