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As schools grapple with how to educate students in a pandemic, they’re also being forced to consider how to protect students from predatory behavior online.

What those protections look like was discussed during an online town hall event hosted Wednesday night by Voice of San Diego. The program zeroed in on student-teacher interactions on electronic devices, which have increased dramatically as education moved purely online.

Our multi-year effort to understand how public schools across San Diego County deal with complaints of sexual misconduct by employees found numerous examples of teachers using technology to make inappropriate contact with students outside of class. The investigation also uncovered a variety of ways in which school employees often escape accountability and students are not adequately protected.

My colleague Kayla Jimenez and I unpacked some of those issues with panelists including San Diego County District Attorney Summer Stephan, San Diego Unified Trustee Richard Barrera and researcher Billie-Jo Grant, who is also a board member of the nonprofit Stop Educator Sexual Abuse, Misconduct & Exploitation. They also discussed some of the changes and safeguards put in place to better protect students.

The event also featured a conversation with former Chula Vista High School Student Moriah Brogden, who was one of three female students who reported sexual behavior by their show choir teacher in early 2017. We previously reported that case and outcome here, here and here.

“Things escalated and I wasn’t really aware of what to look for,” Brogden said Wednesday. “Ask your students what they think about their teachers.”

Stephan, the region’s top prosecutor, discussed efforts her office has made to provide new avenues to file complaints about sexual misconduct in schools, but said more education is needed.

“We are still stuck on ‘stranger danger,’ which is only 10 percent of the cases,” said Stephan.

Barrera, the school board member, said San Diego Unified has new rules in place for teachers to not interact with students one-on-one online during the crisis. Teachers are urged to instead include a second teacher on student messages or ask students on video conferences to move to a room where an adult is present. Teachers are supposed to use only district-approved online learning tools and are barred from friending students using their personal social media accounts.

During our Q&A session, a viewer asked whether students were made aware of these new rules.

That hasn’t happened, and Barrera said prior plans for a student-led education campaign about sexual misconduct – as recommended by a district task force earlier this year – have been put off during the crisis. “But that is something that needs to happen. … We may not be able to do a physical assembly right now with students, but there are a lot of ways we can do mass communication and mass education of students,” he said.

Ashly is a freelance investigative reporter. She formerly worked as a staff reporter for Voice of San Diego.

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