Students at Magnolia Elementary stand at arm’s length waiting to wash their hands after their recess break. Magnolia is one of several schools in the Cajon Valley Union School District to offer child care for families during the coronavirus pandemic. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz
Students at Magnolia Elementary stand at arm’s length waiting to wash their hands after their recess break. Magnolia is one of several schools in the Cajon Valley Union School District to offer child care for families during the coronavirus pandemic. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

At a hearing weighing Gov. Gavin Newsom’s plan to incentivize schools to reopen to in-person instruction last Friday, San Diego Unified Trustee Richard Barrera said something rather astonishing: He believes the state should take the billions of dollars it’s earmarked to help schools reopen and instead just give it to them, without reopening. The state, Barrera suggested, should “take that $4.6 billion and add to that the $2 billion that’s in an unworkable plan the governor put into reopening, and put those resources into the needs of our students now.”

Barrera also hinted at what has since become a major showdown: whether teachers’ unions will set the bar at getting all educators vaccinated before they agree to go back. Doing so would be “entirely appropriate given risks in our community. We should get that vaccine before we take a risk and go back,” Barrera told a state Senate panel.

This next week, the powerful California Teachers Association took up that mantle.

It wrote in a letter to Newsom that teachers should be prioritized in the vaccination rollout, and that teachers want to see significant reductions in community spread and other metrics before they would return, Politico reported. The union and Newsom disagree on what the threshold should be. Newsom fired back that the unions should be more direct and simply tell the public that schools will not reopen this school year under their demands.

“If everybody has to be vaccinated, we might as well just tell people the truth: there will be no in-person instruction in the state of California. Just tell them the truth. Don’t mislead people,” Newsom said in a meeting, the video of which was obtained by Politico.

Schools can’t reopen without teachers, and teachers have made it quite clear they’re not ready to go back any time soon. But if a school did, in fact, have teachers and wanted to reopen … could it?

VOSD’s Ashly McGlone reviewed the latest state guidance, which attempts to set the record straight after even school leaders found themselves confused.

But in an Assembly hearing this week, State Superintendent Tony Thurmond made some comments that caught our eye. He seemed to suggest that schools could simply ignore the state guidance, if they choose: “Nothing about what has happened in the state has taken away the decision-making of local school boards to make those decisions, at every level,” he said, in response to a question about who has the ultimate authority to close or open schools. “Our office, the governor’s office, the Department of Public Health, we try to provide resources and guidance to help guide that… We don’t tell them when to open. So again that power always has rested with the local school boards to make that decision, but our office, the governor’s office, does everything we can to provide resources and guidance and support to help them in making those decisions.”

Meanwhile, a bill by Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez that would allow students to re-do this school year if they choose appears to be hitting some roadblocks. A hearing on the bill was canceled this week. Sami Gallegos, Gonzalez’s spokeswoman, told me work on the bill continues, “but the assemblywoman believes the budget process is a more appropriate venue to move forward with some of these discussions.”

Gonzalez told VOSD in December that “nobody wants me to do this bill.”

Patient Rights, Transparency Issues Collide in Bates Bill

For people who’ve been convicted of certain criminal offenses, completing a prison sentence doesn’t necessarily mean freedom. Prison could be followed by commitment to a state hospital if a person is found to have an underlying mental disorder that’s driving criminal behavior.

That hospital commitment is indefinite, ending only if a person successfully demonstrates to a court that they’ve engaged in treatment and are no longer a danger to the public. Because these court proceedings involve testimony about psychiatric evaluations and treatment records, they’re closed to the public — unless the person is considered a sexually violent predator, or SVP – a legal, not clinical, term for someone whose sexual crime involved the use of force or threats of injury against multiple victims.

In at least three recent cases, San Diego County public defenders have pushed back against the presumption of an open courtroom for SVP hearings, arguing that their clients are entitled to the same privacy rights as non-SVPs who petition for release from a state hospital. In two of those cases, the judge agreed to close the hearings.

San Diego County District Attorney Summer Stephan disagreed, and argued in a press release that closed hearings undermine “the principles of democracy and transparency in our justice system.” Last year, Stephan worked with state Sen. Pat Bates to introduce SB 1023 to keep the hearings open. That bill was put on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but reintroduced last Friday as Senate Bill 248.

The bill would forbid a judge from closing to the public an SVP’s civil commitment hearing or hearings tied to a petition for release, “unless compelling and extraordinary circumstances justify closing the courtroom.”

“Victims, their families and the public have the right to witness hearings regarding the potential release of a predator,” Bates said in a statement.

Victims who protested the first closed hearing in July 2019 told the Union-Tribune that the judge was violating Marsy’s Law, which allows crime victims to attend criminal proceedings. But that law applies only to criminal court. To pass constitutional muster, California’s SVP law had to make clear that people subjected to a civil commitment were to be viewed “not as criminals, but as sick persons.”

Bates said SB 248 would broaden Marsy’s Law to include SVP hearings.

Amy Hoffman, a deputy public defender who petitioned to have hearings closed for her client, Douglas Badger (a request the judge rejected), said that open hearings can have a chilling effect on a person’s willingness to participate in treatment if they know treatment records will be made public.

Research has shown that people who commit sexually violent acts were often victims of abuse themselves.

“The treatment that these men undergo at the state hospital is not solely focused on the offenses they committed,” Hoffman told VOSD, “but also entails revealing the most intimate of details about their own victimization and trauma. Imagine being in a therapy session and disclosing the most shameful, hurtful thing that was ever done to you and then have that publicized to the community during an SVP proceeding.”

The stated goal of California’s SVP law is successful reintegration back into the community. Open hearings can undermine that goal, Hoffman said, especially if information disclosed in a hearing is misrepresented by the media or taken out of context. Hoffman said that the public can still access portions of a petitioner’s court file, including summaries of expert opinions about why the person is safe be released.

SB 248, Hoffman said, “will forever change a court’s ability to protect the psychotherapist-patient privilege and strip the rehabilitative efforts of sex offender treatment.”

Kelly Davis

Weber Confirmed as Secretary of State

Shirley Weber, who since 2012 has represented the San Diego-based 79th District in the Assembly, is now set to take the oath of office to become California’s secretary of state, after being approved by both houses of the Legislature this week.

The Assembly approved Weber’s nomination in a unanimous, bipartisan vote. The Senate’s vote was also unanimous but was far less bipartisan – Senate Republicans declined to vote for her, and instead took a “no vote” position instead of actually voting against her. Think of it as a slightly more polite way of saying, “No, we don’t want you to have this job.”

Weber gave one of her signature barn-burning speeches after being approved by her Assembly colleagues, which is worth watching in full.

Golden State News

Ashly McGlone contributed to this report.

Sara Libby

Sara Libby was VOSD’s managing editor until 2021. She oversaw VOSD’s newsroom and content.

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