How One School District Got a Handle on Its Abuse Problem - Voice of San Diego

Education UNVEILING THE UNSEEN

How One School District Got a Handle on Its Abuse Problem

Redlands Unified School District isn’t unique in employing educators who abused students, or in covering up those problems. But what happened in Redlands is unusual in an important way: The district started to make big changes.

The Redlands Unified School District headquarters / Photo courtesy of Redlands Unified

An AP English teacher at Citrus Valley High School initiated sexual relations with a student and eventually gave birth to the student’s child. The teacher eventually pleaded guilty to molesting that student and others.

A math teacher at Redlands High School coerced a student into sending him nude photographs, and engaged in sexual activities with her multiple times, including in his classroom. That teacher eventually pleaded guilty to molesting that student and others.

Both students later sued Redlands Unified School District, a district in San Bernardino County, claiming school officials and employees were aware of the educators’ inappropriate conduct, yet failed to report the abuse to authorities as required by state law. They claimed the district was negligent and did not do enough to prevent the abuse.

The lawsuits against the district didn’t end there.

Other Redlands High School students sued the district for abuse by predatory teachers. One alleged she was abused by an English teacher beginning when she was 15 in 2008 and 2009. One alleged a school employee had sex with her when she was a minor from 2011 to 2013. Four alleged they were sexually abused by one Redlands High drama teacher as teenagers in 2016 and 2017. Each of those students claimed the district did not do enough to protect them from harm and were negligent in prevention.

In all, Redlands Unified School District agreed to pay more than $30 million to settle lawsuits involving sexual misconduct by school employees between 2016 and 2018.

An investigation by Southern California News Group unveiled further problems regarding school culture, sexual abuse by district employees and a pattern of cover-ups by school officials and administrators.

Those problems aren’t unique to Redlands. An ongoing investigation by Voice of San Diego has found common systemic issues that prevent abuse from being quickly recognized and reported, and allow problem educators to continue working with children.

But what happened in Redlands is unusual in an important way: The district started to make big changes. Redlands’ new protocols are a noteworthy start in the way they aim to lower the threshold for what signs should be reported to authorities.

MaryRone Shell, a spokeswoman from the district, said efforts were made not solely as a result of those lawsuits and an increase in the district’s insurance claims since the payouts.

“We want individuals who have maleficence to know they are not welcome,” she said.

Creating Boundaries

Few schools or districts in San Diego County or elsewhere have policies that clearly spell out appropriate boundaries between teachers and students – and many have paid out millions in legal settlements as a result.

Redlands learned the hard way.

Following the settlements last year, the district enacted a new policy that clearly defines educator impropriety, appropriate electronic communications between teachers and students and what happens when educators violate the rules.

The policy instructs employees to avoid being alone with individual students out of view of others, inviting or allowing students to visit their homes, remaining on campus with students alone or visiting a student’s home.

Staff are also instructed not to contact students for personal purposes outside of school by phone, letter, texts or social media. If they want to contact students for educational purposes, they must loop in another adult, like a parent or the school principal. Adults are also instructed not to follow, accept friend requests from or communicate with minors on social media. When a coach or club adviser wants to text students, they must message all team members at once, unless it involves a student’s private academic or medical issues, in which case they must loop in the school principal.

Those guidelines could have led school officials or other employees to report their suspicions about some of the earlier abusive teacher-student relationships far sooner. Many of the student victims in those cases claimed the district failed to recognize the seemingly friendly interactions between educators and students before they led to sexual contact, also known as child grooming.

Mauricio Arellano, the superintendent of Redlands Unified, said the policy was first created and reviewed by its union leadership and local police department. Once the board approved the policy, the district’s management and administration were consulted and had the opportunity to share input before it was rolled out to staff.

The policy says employees found to have violated the rules shall be subject to disciplinary action up to and including dismissal, and may be subject to a report to the state teacher credentialing agency. Those who have knowledge of inappropriate employee conduct and fail to report it, or who retaliates against those who do report violations, can also be subject to discipline.

“Due to the lengthiness and the severity of the consequences for violating the policy, we wanted to ensure they knew the specific expectations, guidelines and conditions that are required,” Arellano wrote in an email.

The policies target so-called grooming behaviors that can be hard to recognize as inappropriate or dangerous, but that are often a precursor to abuse. Many of the Redlands lawsuits went into detail about the ways in which educators first groomed victims, including by showering students with compliments or spending time with them outside of school.

School employees are now prohibited from touching students or initiating physical contact without a legitimate educational purpose, telling sexually charged jokes or making sexual innuendos, being alone with a student out of view of others, singling out a particular student for personal attention or friendship, addressing students or allowing students to address staff with terms of endearment or pet names, exchanging personal gifts or cards with students, transporting students in personal vehicles in nonemergency situations and without written permission, romantic flirtation or sexual remarks and sexual jokes, banter and innuendo.

Los Angeles Unified School District implemented similar regulations after it paid $139 million to multiple student victims preyed on by a former third grade teacher at Miramonte Elementary School in one of the largest lawsuit settlements for educator child abuse in the state in 2014. The district released a bulletin last year that clearly spells out grooming behavior.

Though some Redlands employees suspected some of the relationships between students and teachers that eventually led to lawsuits were inappropriate, the district waited until it had further proof to report the interactions to authorities.

The new policy emphasizes the state’s mandated reporting law and tells employees that if they observe misconduct or have knowledge of another employee violating school policies, they should make a report to the county’s child protective services.

“Hindsight, as we learned, is 20/20 and as a result, examples of reasonable suspicion are many but an actual definition is vague and ambiguous and yet as mandated reporters, we are responsible for reporting reasonable suspicion,” Shell, the district spokeswoman, said.

The policy also lays out clear steps and instructions for how the district should carry out investigations into violations. It says officials should be allowed to consider previous complaints or a history of improper interactions against an employee under investigation.

Training and Culture

Last year, Redlands Unified implemented a new school safety initiative, called Actions Create Trust Now, with a focus on prevention and awareness. It includes training for staff on recognizing and preventing child abuse.

Arellano said the district consulted with families and community members through forums last year. He said as a result of those forums, the district noticed the community had a clear desire for increased overall safety.

“It’s about the culture that these policies operate in. Policies and trainings aren’t going to be enough to create a culture on how sexual assault and harassment can be tolerated.”

Arellano said the district launched an awareness campaign called “See something? Hear something? Sense something? Say something” in an effort to lower the threshold for what types of behavior should be reported to police and child protective services.

He said schools are required to display posters with contact information to local law enforcement and child protective services agencies. The district also brought in an expert on child abuse prevention to train its administrators and staff last year on what signs of harm they should look for and what to report to authorities.

Shell said staff and administrators also received intensive training last summer on grooming behavior – and were told to report any combination of two boundary-crossings signs to authorities. The district also formalized partnerships with local law enforcement agencies and community organizations on child abuse prevention and recognition.

The district told Southern California News Group that it expected an increase in reports of suspected misconduct as a result of the new protocol. Shell told VOSD the district could not say whether there was a true increase in reporting because the district encourages its staff to report suspicions directly to CPS and law enforcement rather than school officials.

“What we can say is that because we have lowered the threshold of reasonable suspicion … there have been reports made, and if these efforts have prevented even one child from abuse, it will have all been worth it,” she said.

Laura Palumbo, a spokeswoman for the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, said schools can send a message to teachers, staff members, parents and kids by providing training and enforcing protocols to show they’re taking these situations seriously and investing in shifting campus culture.

Palumbo said schools need to think about ways to bring policies and procedures to life so that they can become familiar with the processes for handling sexual assault and abuse cases.

“It’s about the culture that these policies operate in,” Palumbo said. “Policies and trainings aren’t going to be enough to create a culture on how sexual assault and harassment can be tolerated.”

What’s Next

Arellano said he and administrators are still thinking of what more can be done.

“We must be willing to consistently identify vulnerabilities, analyze data and implement actions that benefit the safety of our students and staff,” Arellano wrote in an email.

He said Redlands urges other school districts to look beyond curriculum, instruction and minimum legal requirements to increase trainings, establish clear policies and protocols, heighten awareness, work closely with local law enforcement agencies and to communicate those measures to stakeholders.

“Taking action in a swift and appropriate manner against anyone who violates your policy is the strongest way to send a clear message to potential predators,” he wrote.

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