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Photo illustration by Adriana Heldiz

As our reporting revealed in 2019, top San Diego institutions like police departments, school districts and health officials failed to protect the vulnerable – the ordinary people who are subject to abuse and neglect by those who have power over them.

An educator cozied up to a student he targeted for sexual abuse, and officials did nothing. Police officers got convicted of serious crimes but stayed on the force. The health system abandoned mentally ill people in crisis to wait endlessly for help, and a troubled school district left students to walk three miles to school.

We didn’t just write about dysfunction, though. VOSD journalists also dove into political money trails, the history of the housing crisis and the local roots of baseball’s greatest hoax.

Here’s a look at the stories chosen by our journalists as their favorites of the year:

We Help You Follow the Money

Scott Lewis, CEO/editor in chief

The Story: Politics Report: All the $$$, in Charts

What It’s About: After a crucial deadline, we created a visual guide to the most important local political races and the fundraising efforts of candidates.

Why the Writer Liked It: I have never had more fun writing something regularly than our weekly newsletter, the Politics Report. Every week, we dissect both the most interesting policy arguments and the actual competition for political power. This particular week, we did a visual guide to the most important local races and the fundraising effort after a crucial deadline.

What’s happening now: 2020 will be an extraordinary year for politics, and we’re not even talking about the presidential race that will have profound implications for the entire world. Locally, there will be tax measures and about 20 crucial races that will reshape everything from the San Diego school board to the local congressional delegation. You will need people to guide you each week through both the policy fights and the accumulation of advantages politically.

S.D. High School Stays Silent After Groping of Student

Sara Libby, managing editor

The Story: District Discovers Docs Showing Teacher Suspected of Crime Received No Discipline

What It’s About: For years, the San Diego Unified School District told us it had no documents revealing complaints against a La Jolla High School teacher, even though multiple women told us they’d reported that he had groped him. Some of the women even shared emails that proved the district did, in fact, have a paper trail.

But it wasn’t until the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing began investigating the teacher, Martin Teachworth, that the dam began to break. As part of its investigation, the commission sent the school district a subpoena for the same documents VOSD had been requesting for years. Suddenly, district officials said they “discovered” the documents in an abandoned storage room.

What the documents showed is deeply disturbing: The district believed Teachworth committed a crime when he stuck his hands down a student’s pants, yet it never reported him to police – in violation of California’s mandated reporting laws – and never disciplined him or removed him from the classroom as a result of the incident. As a result, he kept on teaching – and racking up more complaints.

Why the Writer Liked It: It’s so rare that a revelation like this completely validates your worst suspicions. It was obvious that the district did, in fact, have records on Martin Teachworth. Not only was that true, but the records turned out to be devastating and showed a shocking lack of action or urgency to protect children from harm.

What’s Happening Now: The credentialing agency revoked Teachworth’s teaching credential. The San Diego Unified board voted to create a task force to recommend new protocols for handling abuse and harassment cases. County prosecutors also formed a task force to address abuse complaints that originate in schools, and it created a new system that allows people to report complaints directly to the DA’s office – bypassing school officials who, Teachworth’s case shows, have sometimes ignored those reports.

Our Housing Crisis: Oh, How it Smoldered

Andrew Keatts, assistant editor

The Story: How San Diego’s Housing Shortage Became So Dire

Our region’s crushing housing costs now dominate San Diego politics. But how did we get here? We wanted to demonstrate the extent to which San Diego’s home-building simply has not kept pace over the last few decades compared with what it accomplished before that time — when working people could reasonably afford to buy a home or at least not spend half of their income on rent.

What It’s About: The story didn’t discuss the best ways to solve the housing crisis. I did not speak to any developers about their frustration with red tape or any tenant advocates about their desire for rent control. This was about stipulating some basic facts that predate those debates.

Why the Writer Liked It: We still are not building many homes, in spite of some regional attempts to spur housing production. City voters will decide in November whether to approve a tax measure to build some low income housing. But we’re many, many years from doing anything that would meaningfully reverse decades without significant home-building.

Convicted Cops Stay on Local Police Forces

Jesse Marx, associate editor

The Story: Dozens of Police Officers Across San Diego County Have Been Convicted of Crimes

What It’s About: Over the last decade, hundreds of cops in California, including dozens in San Diego, have been convicted of crimes. Domestic violence was among the most common charge after DUIs and other alcohol-related offenses, but those cases often ended in plea deals for property damage. At least one convicted SDPD officer is still on the force. State law allows officers with restraining orders or certain domestic violence convictions to continue carrying guns.

Why the Writer Liked It: The California attorney general didn’t want these stories to come out. He threatened legal action against a pair of Berkeley reporters who got their hands on the state’s secret list of criminal cops. Instead, the reporters shared the list with VOSD and other newsrooms, and together we verified much of its content, culminating in the release of a searchable database.

Our series was truly a team effort. For weeks, my colleagues and I gathered court records from across the county. It took significant time and resources to navigate this system of bureaucracy, and we often felt like we were at the mercy of clerks and court reporters for copies of what should be easily accessible case files, audio recordings and transcripts.

Our findings also suggested that the state agency overseeing police officer standards isn’t keeping a close on cops convicted of crimes.

What’s Happening Now: Turns out California is one of only five states that don’t decertify police officers for misdemeanors and misconduct. Georgia and Florida — not known as bastions of progressive thinking — have some of the broadest decertification powers in the nation. In 2016, roughly half the Americans booted from law enforcement worked in those two states.

After our stories started running in November, California lawmakers on both the Assembly and Senate public safety committees said they’re interested in giving the state more authority to strip police officers of their badges.

A Desperate Wait for Help When Darkness Descends

Lisa Halverstadt, staff writer

The Story: Clogs in San Diego’s Psychiatric Care System Are a Nightmare for Patients and Hospitals

What It’s About: San Diego’s mental health system is clogged. More patients struggling with mental health crises are showing up in emergency rooms. When they get there, they sometimes wait days for a hospital bed. And then once they have gotten one, many wait for another slot to open up at a more specialized facility – and those wait times have been soaring.

Why the Writer Liked It: In the years I have written about San Diego’s homelessness crisis, I’ve seen and often heard about the shortcomings of our region’s mental health system. I started 2019 with a New Year’s resolution to document — and explain — the foremost challenges facing our complex behavioral health system.

I spoke with many patients and families about some of the most challenging moments of their lives and spent hours analyzing data and speaking with experts. In 2020, I hope to tell stories about San Diegans who have been unable or unwilling to seek behavioral health care on their own.

What’s Happening Now: County leaders are trying to transform the region’s mental health system to more efficient model that helps patients stabilize before they fall into crisis. This past year, county supervisors voted to move forward with efforts to create a network of behavioral health hubs and crisis units meant to help stem the flow of patients into local ERs. The county is also looking bolster long-term care options and create incentives for hospitals to invest more in outpatient and coordinated care.

Inside a Bonkers $80 Million Alleged School Scam

Will Huntsberry, staff writer

The Story: Inside the Charter School Empire Prosecutors Say Scammed California for $80 Million

What It’s About: A3 Education is accused of scamming California taxpayers for $80 million.

The alleged scam involved several methods of fraudulently enrolling students into online charter schools, prosecutors say. A significant portion of the money came from enrolling students – many who were involved in summer athletic programs like football or cheerleading – who never took any classes or did any school work.

Why the Writer Liked It: When I saw initial reports about the scam, I realized people who weren’t deeply immersed in the education world would have a really hard time getting a handle on what happened. I was able to find interesting characters in a 200-plus page indictment and pull readers through the story to understand the scam.

I loved this story because we don’t often cover complex financial fraud on the education beat. (San Diego has tried to prove me wrong on this.) Readers loved the story too. They spent an average of 10 minutes reading it – that’s basically 100 years in internet time!

Really, what’s not to love? The story involved covert suitcases crammed full with student paperwork worth millions of dollars and workers joking about champagne bonus parties.

The case also exposed major loopholes in how the state funds schools and how it audits them.

What’s Happening Now: Eleven people were charged in this case. One of the ringleaders appears to be on the run in Australia. So far, one person has taken a plea deal in exchange for cooperation with prosecutors. That means others may also be in a rush to strike a deal in the New Year. If the case goes to trial, then an end date to the A3 saga could be just months away.

Schools Struggle to Stop ‘Grooming’ by Sexual Abusers

Kayla Jimenez, staff writer

The Story: Grooming Is a Gateway to Sexual Abuse, but Schools Are Virtually Powerless to Stop it

What It’s About: In countless cases in which educators abuse students, they first “groom” them – by offering praise, sending them cozy texts, offering rides home and more. But there are virtually no state guidelines to help educators identify signs of grooming, and these acts aren’t illegal. We shined a light on the lack of regulations and training with an eye toward how it leaves students vulnerable.

Why the Writer Liked It: I noticed a common thread while poring over thousands of pages of records from schools across the region: Reports of activities that experts often identify as grooming, such as social media contacts, text messages and singling out a student for personal attention and friendship, and giving gifts or nicknames to individual students.

I hope that this story and others in the series have helped other families and students who were victimized — both by predatory teachers and school systems that failed to listen — feel less isolated.

What’s Happening Now: After we published the story, we released another piece on how school districts like South Bay’s Sweetwater Union High School District don’t have policies or training on teacher-student boundaries and are paying the price.

Then the California School Board Association and San Diego County Office of Education started to take notice. Both entities created policies on student-teacher interactions for others to follow. We’re still watching to see which of the other 42 local school districts will implement similar policies. Sweetwater still has not done so.

Why Migrants Keep Coming to the U.S.

Maya Srikrishnan, staff writer

The Story: The Other Big Reason Why So Many Hondurans Come to the U.S.

What It’s About: This story looked at the ties that migrants from Honduras have in the U.S. While covering Central American asylum-seekers at the border, I noticed that nearly everyone already had family in the U.S. Many of the discussions and stories that explored why so many people fleeing violence and poverty in Central America were coming to the U.S. to seek asylum never explored the ties that many of them had here.

Why the Writer Liked It: This story pitch enabled me to get the funding to travel to Honduras earlier this year. It was an amazing opportunity to travel to the home of many asylum-seekers and help inform local discussions about the immigration issue at our doorstep.

What’s Happening Now: Hondurans and other Central Americans continue to flee the violence, corruption and poverty they face in their countries. But new policies — like the so-called “Remain in Mexico” program and deals signed in Honduran, El Salvador and Guatemala — require migrants to apply for asylum in those countries first. They’ve dismantled the asylum system in the U.S. as we know it.

Victims Call on Schools to Step Up Fight Against Abuse

Ashly McGlone, staff writer

The Story: Victims of Teacher Misconduct Say Schools Should Go Beyond Checking Boxes

What It’s About: High schoolers and other students have enough to worry about without dealing with predators at school. In our years’-long effort to understand how schools handle sexual misconduct by employees, we’ve discovered lapses in accountability and cover-ups by districts that conceal misconduct from future employers at the expense of future students. This article highlights several student experiences, the missed opportunities to stop abuse and student recommendations for how to provide a safer school environment free of harassment.

Why the Writer Likes It: Talking directly to students impacted by school-employee sexual misconduct can be heart-wrenching. It makes us angry to hear them explain what could and should have been done to stop it or limit the harm. Hopefully our coverage will provide insight to decision-makers who can make changes.

What’s Happening Now: VOSD is still in court fighting to get employee misconduct records withheld by Poway Unified and Coronado Unified. The employee involved in the Coronado case is also fighting to keep his investigation records secret.

Some public school agencies are also beefing up their policies for staff-student boundaries. The San Diego County Office of Education and the San Dieguito Union High School District adopted some of the most extensive policies in the region. They generally prohibit employees from being alone with students and bar various kinds grooming behaviors, such as sharing secrets or personal problems with a student, riding in a personal vehicle with a student and home visits and non-educational communication via phone or social media — activities that often precede sexual relationships.

In November, the San Diego County District Attorney’s Office also created a new online reporting tool and task force to handle complaints about abuse in schools, with an emphasis on holding employees accountable who fail to follow the state’s mandated reporter laws.

In Water Deals, a Wave of Action Behind the Scenes

Ry Rivard, former staff writer

The Story: A Little-Known Company Is Quietly Making Massive Water Deals

What It’s About: A few names kept popping up in my reporting on California water, including a company called Renewable Resources Group. Not many people knew much about them, though.

While many people didn’t know it, the company had made big deals with the state’s most powerful water agency, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which supplies much of the water used in our part of the state. Turns out Renewable had sold $430 million of land to Metropolitan and was buying up more land, likely for another big deal somewhere down the road involving water from the Colorado River.

Why the Writer Liked It: This story ties together a lot of things: Water, which we all need. Money, which we all want. Droughts, which we all fear. It also features cameos from Harvard University’s giant endowment, Enron’s water-related spinoff, former Sen. Barbara Boxer’s son and previously unpublished records about one of the largest government land deals in recent memory — Metropolitan’s $175 million purchase of 20,000 acres of farmland south of Sacramento. Last we checked, the government was losing money on the deal.

What’s Happening Now: One of Renewable’s executives just joined the board of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, another powerful Southern California water-and-energy agency.

School Bus Cuts Leave Teen With Six-Mile Commute

Adriana Heldiz, multimedia producer

The Story: Six Miles in a San Ysidro High Schooler’s Shoes

What It’s About: I met Jose Luis Perez, a San Ysidro High School student, at a public meeting about the Sweetwater Union High School District’s decision to cut 20 bus routes to help plug its $30 million budget deficit. Jose Luis was forced to walk six miles round-trip daily to get to and from school. After the meeting, I asked his mom if I could walk with him to school and document his journey. Two days later, I did just that.

Why the Writer Liked It: My passion is visual storytelling. Almost every news outlet in San Diego had reported on Sweetwater’s financial crisis and the possible impacts, but no one had actually shown what it looked like. I wanted to document the real-life impact of the district’s mismanagement.

What’s Happening Now: Readers offered financial support to Jose Luis and his family, and a local community group gave him a bike. He was still making the six-mile journey the last time I spoke with him.

Parents and students still meet regularly with district officials to find solutions. By November, the group persuaded the district to add two more bus stops. They plan to fight for more bus routes in 2020.

Test Results Undermine SDPD’s Rape Kit Stance

Kelly Davis, contributing writer

The Story: Dozens of Rape Kits From SDPD’s Backlog Have Yielded DNA Database Hits

What It’s About: For years, San Diego Police Department officials resisted calls to test a backlog of roughly 2,000 sexual assault kits. While some of the kits legally couldn’t be tested, hundreds of others had been shelved for reasons that didn’t make sense to victim advocacy groups. In 2017, after the City Council allocated $500,000 to the department to test more kits, I began putting in public records requests for the results. Those records showed that between late 2017 and November 2018, out of 121 kits uploaded to the federal database, CODIS, 38 profiles resulted in hits. Eighteen were “cold” hits, meaning a match to an offender who wasn’t a suspect in the case and a potentially important investigative lead. The results undermine the department’s longtime contention that testing all sexual assault kits has no benefit. (Unfortunately, the department has stopped tracking test results from those kits.)

Why the Writer Liked it: For months, I’d kind of been sitting on my findings. Then, in September and October, Andy Keatts published two investigations into crime lab policy changes that had resulted in less rigorous testing and uploading standards. Andy’s findings, combined with mine, were pretty explosive: Despite proof of the value of testing and uploading more kits, crime lab management was implementing policies that undermined kits’ investigative value.

What’s Happening Now: After Andy’s first story, Police Chief David Nisleit announced SDPD would work with a private lab to test 1,700 previously shelved kits. In November, after his second story and our collaborative piece, the department announced a leadership change at the crime lab. The big question to be answered is what will become of those 1,700 kits. Just because a kit is tested doesn’t mean it will be uploaded to CODIS.

S.D.’s Starring Role in Baseball’s Biggest Hoax

Randy Dotinga, contributing writer

The Story: Baseball’s Greatest Myth Has Roots in Point Loma

What It’s About: Baseball likes to think it was immaculately conceived on the pure driven dirt of a pitcher’s mound in upstate New York thanks to a former Civil War general named Abner Doubleday. It’s utter hogwash, the product of the imagination of a Point Loma sporting goods magnate named Spalding (yes, that Spalding) who “inventing baseball’s inventor,” as one historian puts it.

Why the Writer Liked It: I took a break from VOSD’s pages for much of 2019 to spearhead advocacy for fellow independent writers. But I did find time to uncover even more strange tales from San Diego’s quirky history, such as our scandalous congressional representatives, the convention center’s almost century-long fraught relationship with voters, and our black baseball pioneer.

Nothing beat this story, which I stumbled across while writing about baseball books. It has everything: an eccentric mogul, the Civil War, a hoary old myth, a homegrown religious movement (not the only one) — and, of course, at least one person who’s a couple tacos short of a combination plate. What a feast!

What’s Happening Now: A quick Google search turned up multiple recent online descriptions of Abner Doubleday as the founder of baseball. The top baseball myth, just like the best baseball games, seems likely to stick around in our memories forever.

An Unexpected Twist in the Thomas Jefferson Law School Saga

Lyle Moran, contributing writer

The Story: Thomas Jefferson Law School Was Temporarily Stripped of GI Bill Participation

What It’s About: I saw reports this fall that the federal government planned to strip the California Department of Veteran Affairs of its ability to determine which schools can accept students’ GI Bill benefits. As I delved into the unexpected dispute, I learned that one reason for the federal government’s frustration with the state was its handling of veterans benefits at Thomas Jefferson School of Law in San Diego. The state VA had suspended the law school from offering GI Bill benefits to its students for an extended period after the American Bar Association placed Thomas Jefferson on probation in November 2017 due to myriad issues. The state VA later reversed its decision at the urging of the feds, but not before Thomas Jefferson students with veterans benefits had to rely on the school to step in to provide financial support in the government’s place for several months.

Why the Writer Liked it: I had previously written stories for VOSD about the financial and academic issues that put Thomas Jefferson in danger of losing its American Bar Association accreditation, but I didn’t know these problems also impacted the school’s ability to offer GI Bill benefits. It was interesting to learn about the surprising role the California VA’s actions concerning Thomas Jefferson played in its broader battle with the federal government regarding its veterans benefits work. I also appreciated hearing directly from a Thomas Jefferson student who was affected by the school being cut off from accepting GI Bill benefits for a time and appreciated the school stepping up to help amid the other challenges it was facing.

What’s Happening Now: In November, the American Bar Association announced the confirmation of its earlier decision to strip Thomas Jefferson School of Law of its national accreditation. The school’s loss of its ABA stamp of approval became effective Dec. 17, though previously enrolled students will still be considered graduates of an ABA-accredited law school. However, Thomas Jefferson will now function as a state-accredited school for new enrollees, meaning those students will not automatically be eligible to take the bar exam in other states when they graduate. This accreditation change could also again result in the loss of Thomas Jefferson’s ability to offer GI Bill benefits to new students.

Randy Dotinga

Randy Dotinga is a freelance contributor to Voice of San Diego. Please contact him directly at randydotinga@gmail.com...

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