Illustration by Adriana Heldiz

As the end of Cindy Marten’s term as superintendent of San Diego Unified School District looms, former students, advocates and attorneys are worried her approach to abuse and harassment cases will continue to the federal level.

The Senate is set to weigh Marten’s nomination as U.S. deputy secretary of education. During her tenure at San Diego Unified, critics say the district mishandled harassment and abuse complaints and displayed an aggressive opposition to transparency that has largely kept those complaints from public view. And they’re worried the approach could carry over into federal policy on those issues.

In the last seven years, many of the attempts to solve these problems within the district have come from the outside: a federal agency has probed the district’s handling of a sexual abuse case, a state lawmaker proposed legislation aimed at improving how abuse and harassment complaints are handled within the district and the San Diego County district attorney launched a new system for reporting abuse that allowed students and other stakeholders to bypass the district process.

The district declined VOSD’s request to interview Marten for this story. In a January message to families, Marten, who has led the district since 2013, said she’s “never been more optimistic about the future of the American education system” following conversations with Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona. A spokeswoman for the district detailed numerous policy updates made during Marten’s tenure intended to better address how abuse and harassment complaints are handled. The district has also defended its practices in legal filings, in some cases claiming it took every viable option to respond vigorously to incidents of abuse, that it informs and trains all staff members to refer suspicions of abuse or harassment to law enforcement or child welfare agencies and has created new programs and resources to improve staff handling of cases.

“San Diego Unified remains committed to creating a safe learning environment for all students. The district has played a leadership role in the region on issues related to protecting minors from sexual abuse, assault and harassment,” Maureen Magee, a spokeswoman for the district, said in an email.

Under former Secretary of Education Betsy Devos’s leadership, the Department of Education enacted policies that changed how K-12 schools respond to students’ reports of sexual harassment and assault. The new policies require school officials to more formally investigate abuse claims, share evidence with accused students and their parents and strengthen due-process protections for accused students. Those policies also gave more rights to those accused of sexual assault on college campuses.

Terri Miller, president of the group Stop Educator Sexual Abuse, Misconduct and Exploitation, said she hopes that Marten, having led the district through multiple scandals involving teacher sexual misconduct, will be compelled to address the problem head on with strong policy reforms to protect students from abuse.

Lawsuits, Survivors Allege Insufficient Protections

In multiple cases leading up to and during Marten’s tenure, students who reported touching or inappropriate comments by their teachers or peers said they felt dismissed by school officials at best and scrutinized and retraumatized at worst. In other cases, students groomed for abuse by teachers claimed the district failed to protect them or to report warning signs to authorities.

Marten appeared to aim to change the reporting culture at the district by creating the Office of Quality Assurance in 2013, billed as a one-stop accountability shop where parents, students and employees could get their complaints heard and investigated.

But the office itself was soon beset with complaints of rash decision-making, unqualified leadership and inadequate investigations. The value of the office was called into question by testimony describing the district’s response to a sensitive complaint in 2014.

In May 2013, a kindergarten boy allegedly sexually assaulted another kindergartener in the bathroom at Green Elementary School during school hours, according to legal filings and a parent complaint. A year later, one of the victim’s parents complained that the principal at the time failed to follow district procedures in the matter and stalled an investigation while allowing the student to stay in the same classroom with their son. Among other things, one of the boy’s parents said the principal, Bruce Ferguson, did not make them aware of the district’s formal complaint process. The parties settled the complaint and the district agreed to pay the parents.

During the case, Michael Gurrieri, an internal investigator for the district in 2014, wrote in a report that Ferguson failed to properly handle the case and other alleged sexual assault incidents at the school. Gurrieri claimed he was fired for refusing to cover up the principal’s alleged mishandling of those cases. The district settled Gurrieri’s case for $375,000.

According to her own testimony in the case, Marten made important decisions like whether to classify the Green Elementary case as “sexual harassment” without crucial facts. Marten also testified that she wouldn’t necessarily call the boys bathroom encounter “serious.” She said in a deposition that she would want to know more about “individuals and the circumstances” and if “other disabilities” are involved. “I need to know all the facts before I would determine the seriousness of it,” she said.

The federal Office of Civil Rights probed the Green Elementary incident after parents of the student complained that the district “failed to report this sexual assault to the Title IX officer and that none of the Title IX procedures were followed” and that “the school has specifically said that due to the kids [sic] age, they believe the Principal has acted as required.” In an interview with federal investigators, San Diego Unified officials acknowledged not following the rules.

“Counsel confirmed that although the principal referred the matter to child protective services, per District policy, he did not apply the District’s sexual harassment policies. Counsel told OCR that in order to be consistent with the requirements of Title IX, the principal should have treated the complaint as a complaint of sexual harassment, applied the District’s sexual harassment policy and UCP procedures, documented his investigation, communicated his findings to the parents and offered a remedy to the victim,” a letter to Marten from the agency reads.

As a result of the agency’s findings, district officials agreed to improve how they handled sexual incidents. Marten signed an agreement with the agency – without admitting any violation of the law – to develop guidelines to help elementary school principals understand the process for responding to sexual harassment and assault incidents, provide training to all administrators, on how to properly investigate complaints and raise communication with parents to clarify how the district’s procedures apply to incidents at the elementary level, among other changes.

The district previously told Voice of San Diego that the Quality Assurance Office “addresses all concerns and complaints thoroughly in an unbiased and impartial manner and treat everyone involved with dignity and respect.”

Yet allegations that the district did not sufficiently protect students from abuse continued.

In 2016, a Crawford High School student sued the district and his former teacher for negligence, arguing the district failed to recognize and report grooming signs that led to abuse. A jury determined district officials were negligent in failing to warn, train or educate school district employees or students about abuse, and awarded $2.1 million to the student in August 2018, to be paid in part by the teacher and in part by the district.

James Doe sued San Diego Unified for negligence, among other claims.

In the last two years, at least four separate lawsuits have been filed against the district that contend it was negligent in protecting students and that school officials should have intervened sooner.

Some involve students who say they were abused or harassed by teachers, one involves a student who says she was assaulted by another student – but they all argue the district did not adequately respond to the incidents, or do enough to prevent them from happening in the first place. One of those suits, filed by four women who said they were groped and harassed by a La Jolla High school teacher, involves incidents that took place prior to Marten’s tenure as superintendent, but they allege the district’s mishandling of the incident extended for several years after Marten took over.  The district for years claimed not to have records of some of those complaints, including one allegation that the teacher put his hand down the back of a female student’s pants, but eventually produced them under a subpoena from the state Commission on Teacher Credentialing.

In legal filings, the district has defended itself against those claims and denied fault, claiming it has taken numerous measures to protect students.

District critics like Loxie Gant argue that progress under Marten’s leadership appeared to come in reaction to public pressure, lawsuits, federal probes and media reports rather than in a proactive manner to keep kids safe.

Sally Smith, an outspoken advocate for students’ rights at the district, said despite numerous lawsuits for sexual abuse and harassment at the district, Marten did not effectively implement solutions district-wide.

“Sexual harassment complaints were handled differently school to school instead of districtwide. The result was school administrators implemented different policies and school administrators didn’t have districtwide training,” Smith said.

Robert Tambuzi, a co-facilitator of Black Men and Women United who was involved in the San Diego district attorney office’s implementation of a task force to oversee the district’s role on mandated reporting, said he’s deeply concerned about Marten’s nomination.

“The first consideration should be the children who are victims. She is an object, but not the subject of this conversation. They’ve been negatively affected by her piss-poor leadership and neglect,” he said.

Joel Levin, a co-founder and program director of nonprofit Stop Sexual Assault in Schools, said while it’s still unclear how much oversight Marten will have on Title IX policy, the Green Elementary case was an egregious example of mishandling or trying to bury a sexual assault complaint. He said he’d like to have someone with a strong record of Title IX enforcement to hold the federal position.

“The person who’s appointed or nominated for Deputy Secretary of Education should have a strong hold on civil rights and should be someone who’s a champion of Title IX; not someone who seems to ignore or mishandle sexual assault complaints,” Levin said.

Magee, the district spokeswoman, said it would be inappropriate to discuss the federal role to which Marten is nominated. “However, it is worth noting that Superintendent Marten has addressed this work through tangible reforms,” including establishing a Title IX office as a separate entity in 2016, creating a Title IX resource website, conducted staff trainings and provided other resources. The district also added a uniform complaint compliance officer who investigates unlawful discrimination, harassment, intimidation or bullying complaints, Magee said, and has updated a number of other abuse-related policies and reporting procedures.

Transparency Issues Have Kept Cases Hidden

On top of the contentions laid out in the lawsuits that the district’s policies and procedures haven’t sufficiently protected children, advocates, lawyers and journalists have complained throughout Marten’s tenure about a lack of transparency.

Smith told Voice of San Diego that her biggest concern from Marten’s tenure is the way Quality Assurance Office reports are concealed from the public and that more broadly, it’s nearly impossible to obtain documents from the office.

“These federal investigations and reports are never made public,” she said. “I have to learn about them through the back way. I don’t see them posted on a public meeting agenda or discussed by a school board. … They put it on parents or the community to prove something happened rather than actually trying to make schools safe for children.”

Cases of harassment or abuse by district employees, including former principal Vincent Mays and Crown Point Junior Music Academy teacher Lou Grande, were concealed from the public until victims came forward to share their stories, and Voice of San Diego publicized records detailing their cases.

Voice of San Diego asked for records of substantiated employee sexual misconduct over a 10-year period that ended in late 2017. The district delayed producing those records for more than a year, and ultimately produced only 10 cases, despite reporting 45 teachers to the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing over the same period.

Voice of San Diego is in the midst of a lawsuit against San Diego Unified, alleging it has failed to provide public records in a timely manner and slowed the release of public records in violation of the California Public Records Act.

SDUSD abuses its authority by slowing the release of public records to an excruciating degree, often leading to delays over six months to over one year, and occasionally failing to provide any response at all,” Voice of San Diego wrote in its complaint against the district. “VOSD is interested in securing public records from SDUSD to inform the public about the administrative actions of the agency, to better understand how it educates its students, to relay information about the use of taxpayer funds and to generally ensure that interested parties stay abreast of the conduct of the ‘people’s business.’”

In legal documents, the district has acknowledged that “it sometimes takes more than one year to produce all documents responsive to certain requests” but said it is limited in its ability to respond to records requests by storage costs, personnel limitations and the number of records it must search to produce responses, among other issues.

Jessica Pride, an attorney at the Pride Law Firm, is representing a former San Diego High student who sued the district after she was sexually abused by a teacher.

“It’s a freaking scavenger hunt even when I know what I’m looking for. Documents aren’t there and the right hand hasn’t found what the left hand has supposedly,” Pride said. “If not for upstanding teachers who’ve come forward and wanted to tell the truth, the survivors wouldn’t get justice because San Diego Unified isn’t forthcoming.”

Attorneys like Pride who’ve represented victims who sued the district told Voice of San Diego they’re especially troubled by the district’s procedures involving into Title IX cases. Dan Gilleon, who represented the student in the Crawford High School case, said the district’s legal team has inflicted further harm on victims by threatening retaliation against staffers who want to come forward, and drawing out settlement procedures. But he also said those practices are not unique to San Diego Unified, or to Marten in particular.

Marlea Dell’Anno, who has represented Lincoln High students in sexual harassment cases against the district, said she thinks Marten is the wrong choice for an administration role in part because the district doubled down in defending itself in numerous harassment and abuse cases instead of trying to figure out what went wrong, and changing the culture.

“What’s happened at Lincoln High really bothers me because I don’t think for a second she would’ve tolerated the same things, let’s say, in Scripps Ranch or La Jolla,” Dell’Anno said. “In places like Lincoln where economic issues are at play, it’s almost like she was banking on the fact that they won’t sue because they don’t have time or money.”

Change Has Come From the Outside

Many of the pushes to address these issues have come from outside agencies and officials.

In 2019, Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez introduced a bill that would have created an ombudsman position to create a more reliable process for handling misconduct complaints. Gonzalez wrote at the time that the bill was inspired by the district’s mishandling of the La Jolla High incidents.

Though the district declined to discipline the teacher involved in the La Jolla High complaints, the California Teacher Commission revoked Teachworth’s credential in 2019.

The San Diego County District Attorney’s office launched a task force to address school abuse complaints and an online reporting tool for students, parents and employees to report abuse in schools, allowing them to bypass district processes or to loop in law enforcement officials if they believe their complaints have been mishandled. The district implemented its own task force in September 2019 to address child abuse after community concern and lawsuits arose. The recommendations made by the task force focused on creating a culture of reporting and more training, but not substantial policy change.

Though VOSD’s public records case against the district is ongoing, in 2018 the parties settled over a specific issue within the case when San Diego Unified agreed to retain employee emails for two years before automatically deleting them.

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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