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A Reader's Guide to Our Investigation of Sexual Misconduct in San Diego Public Schools

Our investigation into sexual misconduct cases in San Diego County public schools has revealed some astounding, frustrating stories of harassment and abuse by public school employees, and has exposed some stark patterns when it comes to how schools and districts handle these cases.

Photos by Adriana Heldiz

A few years ago, we heard some disturbing information about a teacher at La Jolla High School.

But, like many tips we receive, it just didn’t pan out: The few records we obtained didn’t shed much light on the situation, and no one wanted to speak on the record.

Fast-forward to 2017, and the #MeToo movement catapulted into the national consciousness. Suddenly, women were ready to speak on the record about their experience with the La Jolla teacher. And there were more – women began approaching us about other inappropriate behaviors they’d experienced or witnessed while attending public schools.

We decided to ask every school in the county for public records related to sexual misconduct over the last decade.

Our investigation so far has revealed some astounding, frustrating stories of harassment and abuse by public school employees, and has also exposed some stark patterns when it comes to how schools and districts handle these cases.

Some teachers, for example, were quietly reprimanded for years as complaints piled up. Other times, school districts moved employees from school to school or reassigned them to new positions after finding they violated sexual harassment policies with students or colleagues.

Some school districts negotiated deals in which they paid employees to leave and agreed to keep quiet about their misbehavior. Doing so can avoid long, costly lawsuits – but it can also enable those accused of misconduct to keep working with kids.

Then there are districts that haven’t produced any records whatsoever, and still more that are fighting to keep theirs secret. We’re fighting in court to obtain them.

But of the documents we have received, VOSD has pored over thousands of pages of school district records, and we still have thousands more to review. The cases we’ve read so far shed light on the way sexual misconduct complaints are handled by local public schools and reveal how the system works – or doesn’t work – to protect students, employees and those accused of wrongdoing.

Here’s a rundown of what we’ve learned so far.

Get Them Out of Here

When public school officials decide an employee must go for violating policies that prohibit sexual harassment, they often face a choice.

Fire them and hope they don’t fight it, or get them to resign, sometimes by offering money or some degree of confidentiality about the misconduct, or both.

Sweetwater Union High School District officials entered such a deal last year after finding a show choir teacher’s misconduct with female students was “severe and pervasive.” Poway Unified School District also did so after investigating two teachers for sexual relationships with 18-year-old students in 2011 and 2016.

School districts that enter employee departure deals sometimes explain the moves by saying it’s worth an upfront payment because it allows them to deal with a problem employee more quickly than if he or she appeals a firing – a process that can be costly and long. On a pure numbers basis, an $80,000 payoff, for instance, looks pretty good compared with an estimated $100,000 to $300,000 in costs, if the district fails to justify the firing before a state commission or local court in the event the employee appeals.

The Grossmont Union High School District has spent more than $130,000 so far trying to fire an El Cajon physical education teacher who a state panel agreed should be terminated for inappropriately touching and talking to students. The teacher is now taking his fight to local court.

In contrast, negotiated departures may avoid litigation and ensure the employees are out of the district, but keeping quiet can enable those found responsible for misconduct to work elsewhere with youth, at another public school or in the private sector.

Voice of San Diego found the Sweetwater choir teacher, for instance, went on to work for Lakeside schools and two youth theaters last school year, while the Poway teachers quickly went to work for private education firms. Most of the new employers told VOSD they were unaware of the misconduct documented by the school districts.

Union leaders argue the bar to fire public school employees is high for a reason, and say employee due process laws make sure good employees aren’t fired arbitrarily. The laws also require districts do a good job investigating and documenting issues.

But what’s clear is school districts are reticent to fire employees, even when they find ample evidence of a problem, or document years of misbehavior absent action from law enforcement.

Records show numerous students complained about inappropriate behavior by a San Dieguito math teacher in 2004, 2007 and 2017 before he reached a deal to resign June 30 this year after spending eight months on paid leave.

It’s Not Always Criminal

The public normally learns about school employee misconduct when a case lands in civil or criminal court. But there is a whole lot more being investigated behind the scenes by schools and even local law enforcement than what makes the news.

There are some reasons for that. First, the district attorney’s office may find a single victim credible but could want more than one victim to put together a compelling case it believes it can win.

A Carlsbad mom who reported her daughter’s elementary school teacher touched her inappropriately was told as much in 2007, and had to wait several months for other victims to come forward before the teacher was charged criminally. He’s now a registered sex offender.

Other victims may never see charges brought.

Police may arrest people and submit cases to the DA for prosecution using a “probable cause” standard, but prosecutors charge people using a higher “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard, said Steve Walker, a spokesman for the San Diego County district attorney.

The result: Thousands of cases investigated and submitted to county prosecutors by local police agencies – including those involving sexual misconduct – do not end in criminal charges.

In 2017, law enforcement agencies submitted 52,587 different defendants to the DA for prosecution of all kinds, according to numbers provided by Walker. Some 37,753 of those defendants, or 72 percent, were ultimately charged with a crime.

More than 13,817 of the cases submitted were rejected, including 6,040 felony crime defendants and 7,777 misdemeanor crime defendants, according to the DA numbers. The rest of the cases were redirected to another agency and a handful, 17, remain under review.

One of the cases rejected by prosecutors came from Chula Vista Police, who investigated the Sweetwater choir teacher following complaints of groping and harassment by three female high schoolers.

Some factors may make prosecution less likely or more difficult or take it off the table entirely.

Two Poway teachers were investigated for sexual relationships with 18-year-old students – and the age of those students likely impacted the decision not to file charges.

Other times, the statute of limitations may have run out by the time students come forward to report abuse years later. Such was the case when a La Costa Canyon High School graduate reported to police a sexual relationship with her teacher occurred as a student five years later in 2016.

Records obtained by VOSD also show anonymous complaints can stymie an investigation if officials can’t identify the complainant. That happened when a student lodged an anonymous complaint online with the San Diego Unified School District in 2016 alleging a longtime La Jolla High physics teacher gave her unwanted neck rubs.

There’s also a lot of behavior that may not be perceived as criminal enough to merit reporting to law enforcement, like grooming behaviors that can pave the way for abuse, but those actions may still qualify for a criminal charge of annoying or molesting a minor.

Records show some employees were warned repeatedly about inappropriate behavior before tougher disciplinary action is taken or a case is referred to local authorities.

Civil attorney David Ring, whose brought cases against school districts for employee sexual misconduct locally and elsewhere in the state, suggests parents make their own reports to police about educator abuse or grooming.

“Way too often they are not reporting it to the authorities … They go about investigating it themselves. They ask the teacher about it and he denies it,” he said, referring to school administrators. “Don’t wait for the district to do the right thing. Go to the police and have them write a report.”

Investigation Quality and Record-Keeping Varies

The quality of the investigation performed by each district and each principal can vary greatly and result in very different outcomes, Voice of San Diego found.

Transcripts of student interviews show some school officials are careful to not blame students who get involved in inappropriate interactions with school employees. They remind them they are not the adult in the relationship.

Other times, former students told VOSD they felt blamed during school interrogations. A La Costa Canyon High graduate said the school’s aggressive approach is part of why she denied having a relationship with her English teacher in 2010.

“They were coming at me, saying, ‘We know something happened. Why don’t you tell us?’” she recalls. “It didn’t really feel like they were doing these things with my best interest in mind. It felt like they were doing this to cover their asses and make sure they didn’t have a scandal on their hands.”

Had school officials handled the investigation differently and offered her counseling, things might have been exposed sooner, she said.

Sexual harassment and misconduct complaints against employees aren’t always documented properly either.

Record-keeping may be scant in some schools and detailed in others. Some principals may not escalate issues to the district office as a matter of protocol or personal choice, and union contracts and district policies can also play a role.

San Diego Unified School District, for instance, initially claimed to have no record of student complaints against the La Jolla High physics teacher, even though multiple former students told VOSD they complained in person to the principal and one spoke to an investigator and wrote a report.

As VOSD reported about San Diego Unified in November:

“The teacher’s union contract calls for complaints to be resolved ‘at the lowest possible level,’ and the school district website says, ‘The district believes that it can resolve issues of harassment and discrimination at the school site.’”

Ring, the civil attorney, told VOSD earlier this year he sees school sites refer complaints to the district office only about half of the time.

“It is so difficult to get documentation into official employment files,” Ring said. “There’s a huge problem. There is no tracking of complaints from the past.” As complaints accumulate over the years, “there is no central location for them, or it’s put in a folder thrown away every year.”

Those who complain should be sure to put their concerns in writing to make sure a paper trail exists, advised Terri Miller, president of the Nevada-based nonprofit SESAME, or Stop Educator Sexual Abuse, Misconduct and Exploitation.

Miller, SESAME’s president, said principals may only be “required to keep documentation of written complaints. If a parent only verbally expressed a complaint, they call it a concern. They can take notes, but he doesn’t have to document it, because no formal complaint is filed. When the principal leaves the position, they can take the notes and destroy them if they want to.”

Failure to keep records of complaints as they are made can make patterns of behavior less obvious and cause officials to treat every complaint like the first. Complaints may appear less credible as a result.

State Teacher Misconduct Investigations Are Slow and Secret

Then there’s the delay and secrecy surrounding the investigations performed by the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing.

As VOSD reported in May:

State law requires school district superintendents to tell the teacher credentialing commission about changes in teacher employment status “as a result of an allegation of misconduct or while an allegation of misconduct is pending” within 30 days.

That could mean a dismissal, resignation, retirement, unpaid leave for more than 10 days as a final employment action, or other changes. Schools must also send the CTC documentation of the misconduct, which may be sexual or financial in nature, or something else.

An April report by the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office found the median time spent by the California credentialing commission investigating teacher misconduct was 414 days – and even longer if the commission’s action is appealed by the teacher to the Department of Justice.

In the meantime, no one is aware a teacher is under investigation until final action is taken months or years later, if at all. Other schools and employers are none the wiser. The educator is free to keep teaching so long as he or she isn’t charged with a set of specific criminal charges that result in automatic credential revocation.

As VOSD reported in May, there was some movement in the state Legislature this year to make school sexual misconduct cases less secret, but the effort failed.

The state bill that died earlier this year would have required schools to inquire with past employers to see if applicants were previously found responsible for an act of child abuse or sexual misconduct with a pupil. Schools would have been required to disclose substantiated sexual misconduct findings directly to other schools.

The legislation would have also banned language preventing disclosure of child abuse or sexual misconduct with a child in union contracts, as well as termination or severance deals with employees.

Claudia Briggs, spokeswoman for the California Teachers Association, which opposed the bill, citing employee due process rights, said existing disclosure through the state teacher credentialing commission, or CTC, is adequate.

“The CTC is already thoroughly vetting new employees and disclosing whatever information it deems necessary,” Briggs said. “The CTC does a fine job and we know is committed to making sure they have the right people in those positions. … So, we believe the work that they are doing is key to making sure students are safe.”

Data VOSD obtained from the CTC shows San Diego County schools reported 235 educators to the credentialing commission for misconduct of all kinds from fiscal year 2009 through March 2018, and 137 San Diego County educators faced credential discipline, or about 58 percent.

The rest of the misconduct cases often remain secret unless they surface in a civil or criminal court case, or through a public records request.

Voice of San Diego also found the state credentialing commission doesn’t disclose details about final disciplinary actions against teachers to non-school employers, not even youth and sports organizations.

Credentialing commission spokesman Joshua Speaks acknowledged the information gap as a potential concern, but suggested non-school employers seek information from other agencies. That’s an imperfect solution.

In other words, Speaks advises non-school employers to file public records requests with school districts and law enforcement agencies to try to piece together what happened to cause the revocation — a process Voice of San Diego has found can take months and may require legal action in court.

Still, thanks to state law and past court cases that have tested the limits of employee privacy, it’s not impossible for the public to get records of school employee misconduct cases if the employee was disciplined, or misconduct claims are found credible.

In the battle between a public school employees’ right to privacy and public’s right to know how schools operate, privacy protections afforded under state law are not ironclad.

Room to Improve Employee Training and Student Guidance

Several former students who spoke to Voice of San Diego reported feeling anxiety and stress from enduring unwanted attention and touching from school employees. Some said retaliation fears and college prospects weighed heavily on their minds and stopped them from reporting or confronting the employee.

Others reported they simply didn’t know what to do when faced with harassment by a school employee. Promises of a harassment-free environment in the school manual didn’t cut it.

A 2014 La Jolla High graduate, Junyi Zheng, made a suggestion to VOSD late last year.

Zheng said she wishes the school held assemblies to tell students about what to do when teachers are inappropriate. Knowing who to report to could have made a difference.

Miller, SESAME’s president, echoed those concerns.

Parents and schools often teach kids about “stranger danger” and urge them to “identify a teacher as safe person to tell, but they don’t identify teachers as a potential perpetrator,” said Miller. “So, when a kid is violated by their teacher, they don’t know what to do with that. ‘What do I do? My safe person is harming me.’”

When it comes to employee training, school districts often say they’re meeting legal requirements for child abuse training. But those trainings may focus on spotting signs for abuse at home, not abuse or harassment taking place at school at the hands of school employees.

School employees can be the first line of defense in protecting coworkers and students from sexual misconduct on campus. What employees do when they hear complaints or observe concerning behavior can make all the difference.

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