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Public school districts across the county and one state education agency adopted sweeping policies over the last year limiting the ways in which educators can interact with students online and over text and social media. The goal was to restrict the types of communications that can be precursors to sexual abuse.

But now, as schools move to online learning due to coronavirus-related closures, law enforcement officials and advocates say they worry those policies will go out the window, and that predatory school employees will use this time as a way to fuel inappropriate student-teacher communications online.

Over the past two years, Voice of San Diego has been investigating teacher misconduct in San Diego’s public schools. Hundreds of pages of district and legal records show inappropriate contact between teachers and students often was fueled by interactions over text, email and social media.

School districts are scrambling now to achieve two seemingly conflicting goals: getting teachers up to speed with online learning platforms while reminding them of restrictions on communicating with students online.

On March 23, the Federal Bureau of Investigation released a memo warning parents and others that school closures due to the coronavirus pandemic can present potential for increased risk of child exploitation. It says parents and guardians should take proactive measures as schools move to online learning to help educate and prevent their children from being victims of child predators and sexual exploitation.

Child-abuse prevention advocates like Billie-Jo Grant, a researcher and evaluator at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, said allowing communication between teachers and students over Zoom, Google Classroom and other online platforms may lead to an increase of child grooming – seemingly innocent attention and communications with students that can be a precursor to abuse – during the pandemic, when teachers and administrators can’t keep as close an eye on potential misbehavior.

Grant, who’s also a board member for the nonprofit Stop Educator Sexual Abuse, Misconduct and Exploitation, said that since predatory teachers will have less physical access to students, actual acts of sexual misconduct will be limited, but she’s concerned more grooming-type interactions could take place because as classrooms move online.

She said actual sexual misconduct may also eventually increase as a result of the grooming and difficulty supervising, depending on how schools reintegrate extracurricular activities and school events.

“It happens in secrecy and shadows,” she said. “And this new environment creates a lot of new spaces to hide virtually but fewer spaces to hide physically.”

Grant said she also worries many of the learning systems teachers are using now may not have been vetted, technology-use policies may not be in place yet to limit boundary-crossing behaviors and reporting of abuse will go down because mandatory reporters and administrators won’t be around to supervise and pick up on warning signs.

Diane Cranley, president and founder of Talk About Abuse to Liberate Kids and a prevention child abuse consultant who works with California K-12 school administrators to train school employees on recognizing and preventing grooming, said she’s concerned predatory employees will feed on students’ vulnerabilities like financial troubles, needs for individualized tutoring and lack of parental support during the pandemic,

“Especially if their sexual and emotional needs are not being met in person; they’re going to find ways to have them met online; that’s where their focus will be,” she said. “We always say they’re looking for voids in a child’s life they can fill. They’re looking for needs. We can assume this is a time in every person’s life with needs to connect. They’ll say ‘Oh, you can’t see your friends anymore? I’ll be your friend. You’re struggling with math? Oh, I can help.’ All opportunities are escalated at this time.”

District Attorney Summer Stephan shares some of their concerns.

Stephan worries about the increased potential for child abuse during the pandemic, said her spokesman, Steve Walker. Walker said the office is reaching out to schools directly and to the public on its social media platforms to encourage reporting from anyone who suspects abuse.

After VOSD revealed schools handle and investigate abuse complaints inconsistently – and sometimes not at all – the district attorney’s office formed a task force to better handle complaints of child abuse in schools and launched an online reporting tool that bypasses school administrators and delivers complaints directly to the DA.

Walker said they have not had any submissions to the DA’s online reporting link since the stay-at-home  order went into effect and are especially concerned about abuse happening, since it’s not being reported to law enforcement.

“When the Student Safety Task Force was formed in 2019, the intention was to reduce inefficiencies in reporting by giving everyone in the community direct access to resources and by empowering all individuals to report suspected abuse directly to the district attorney,” Walker said in an email. “During this current period of quarantine, this direct access is all the more critical.”

Stephan and Paul Gothold, the county superintendent of schools, wrote a joint letter to school staffers as a reminder their duties as mandated reporters of suspected child abuse apply to online learning just as they do in a physical school setting.

“We are asking educators to make an extra effort to reach out to children who have a history of emotional, sexual, physical abuse or neglect, drug use, or discussed/attempted suicide; who are responsible for the care of other children or live in a highly stressful family situation with limited support systems; or who require assistance due to physical, mental, behavioral, or medical disabilities or delays. These children are especially vulnerable now and are counting on us,” the letter reads.

The San Diego County Office of Education was one of the first education agencies in the county to put forth clear guidelines on student-teacher interactions last year. Music Watson, a spokeswoman for the San Diego County Office of Education, said the agency is committed to upholding the policy, which states “all adults are expected to maintain professional, moral, and ethical relationships with students that are conducive to an effective, safe learning environment” and “must have a legitimate educational purpose.” Though schools are moving to a distance learning model, “the spirit of the document remains in force,” she said.

The County Office of Education and San Diego County Association of Educators, a teacher’s union, entered into an agreement early this month that included language ensuring teachers will maintain a high level of professionalism by holding all certificated staff accountable to the California Standards of the Teaching Profession, including teacher, staff and student interactions either in person, through social media, or in an online format, Watson said.

In alignment with the FBI’s guidelines, County Office of Education officials released a guide outlining how to keep kids safe during the pandemic. And in a separate notice, acknowledged kids need schools to continue reporting abuse during the coronavirus crisis and urged staff members to be mindful of their mandatory child abuse reporting duties.

Other school districts that implemented sweeping restrictions on student-teacher electronic communications in recent months say the policies remain in effect and that they’re reminding teachers of expectations during distance learning.

Christine Paik, a spokeswoman for Poway Unified, said that while distance learning is in place, students can communicate with their teachers on the online learning platform Canvas.

“Messages are archived and can be reviewed if there is ever an issue,” Paik wrote in an email. She said the district recommends teachers disable private chat and screen-sharing options to prevent disruptions and sharing of “unwanted content.”

Robert Haley, superintendent of the San Dieguito Union High School District, said officials are requiring all communication to take place inside the district’s network platform. Haley said teachers are using Google Classroom and that IT administrators have blocked outside contacts to prevent some issues that have arisen with the platform Zoom.

“We want to make sure there are good connections between our teachers, staff and students, however, we want it monitored and safe,” Haley said.

The San Diego Unified School District does not have a specific board policy outlining restrictions between teachers and students, but officials are now notifying teachers what kind of interactions with students online are appropriate now that class is moving online next week.

In a memo, the human resources department for the district wrote school employees should ensure all communications with families and students use official channels such as a district-issued email address and Google Classroom. Teachers should not add students as friends or accept students’ friend requests on personal social media accounts and to put their personal social media accounts on private mode, it reads.

Richard Barrera, a board trustee for San Diego Unified, said the HR department also implemented a new web-filtering system where certain keywords on a district-approved platform will be flagged in staff interactions with other staff members or students in order to track potential inappropriate interactions.

“One of the challenges obviously with distance learning is when the teacher needs to be working individually with students,” Barrera said. “So now there are guidelines that say any staff who needs one-on-one interaction with another student should be trying to get another educator into that conversation with them, or if not possible, should be asking the student to be conducting interactions in a space where there’s an adult.”

Barrera said one of the biggest findings the school board learned from a district task force formed to identify ways officials could better handle sexual abuse cases is that there needs to be more communication directly to students and a hotline for students to call.

“The entire process for interactions between students and adults is so different now and it will be for as long as distance learning lasts,” he said. “I’m sure there’s going to need to be a lot of changes. I think HR is being proactive and will be for as long as distance learning lasts.”

Late last year, the California School Board Association put forth a policy on electronic student-to-teacher communications, which districts across the state are free to adopt. Troy Flint, a spokesman for the agency, said the policy is especially relevant now that students and adults are interacting online more than ever.

“Although it wasn’t designed with a pandemic in mind, the language governs all electronic communications and is applicable to our current situation,” Flint wrote in an email.

Child abuse prevention advocates say there are a few things San Diego school districts, parents and students can do to minimize risks.

Christy Heiskala, founder of local nonprofit Educate to Eliminate, said parents should keep a close eye on their children during this time and should be copied on texts and emails sent out by any school employee.

“Teachers who are pedophiles or predators are going to use this time to create a bond with these kids through grooming online,” she said. “So, when they see them in person, the kid will have complete trust and a special relationship with this person. I’m afraid a bond will already be there when school goes back to normal.”

California’s child abuse hotline is (800) 344-6000. San Diego County’s Health and Human Services Agency child abuse hotline is (858) 560-2191.

Kayla Jimenez

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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