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Settlements that forbid victims from speaking out. Poor record-keeping. Inconsistent policies. Union protections, costly litigation, disbelief. Records from districts across San Diego – as well as powerful accounts from students, parents and educators – shed light on some of the factors that help public school employees accused of sexual harassment and misconduct evade accountability, even when administrators or investigators decide that student complaints are credible.
The Sweetwater Union High School District in Chula Vista investigated a male teacher last year for sexual misconduct following reports made by at least three students.
After the investigation concluded, district officials signed a resignation agreement in October 2017 that allows the teacher – the district declined to share his name, and VOSD has threatened legal action if officials continue to withhold it – to remain on paid leave through June 30.
It requires he seek full-time employment elsewhere. The deal contemplates he’ll be re-employed at another public school. If the teacher is hired only part time, Sweetwater agreed to pay the difference to preserve his existing income level and benefits through June 30.
As part of the deal, Sweetwater agreed to drop all existing investigations, and to tell people the teacher is employed in a special assignment position this school year.
After June 30, Sweetwater officials agreed to say that he “has voluntarily resigned from the District, and we wish him well,” according to the settlement Voice of San Diego obtained from the district. The principal had to email school staff the same thing.
“Neither party will comment publically (sic) about the investigation conducted prior to this Agreement, the results of the investigation, or their position regarding the investigation including but not limited to the veracity or credibility of any witnesses interviewed as part of the investigation,” the settlement says.
The district is withholding the student complaints and a school district investigation report. Under the terms of the agreement, the district may not release them unless required by a court order or subpoena, or another lawful request.
The details of the deal and the district’s refusal so far to identify the teacher illustrate some of the systemic issues that have allowed accused teachers to get favorable exit deals and move to new schools with their reputations intact, where they may continue to abuse students.
Settlements sometimes forbid victims from speaking publicly about what they experienced, which means individual victims of a problem employee might never know about one another – and school officials might never know the pervasiveness of the behavior.
Lackluster prevention training. Poor record-keeping. Inconsistent policies from school to school and district to district. Union protections, costly litigation and disbelief.
These are just some of the factors that help public school employees accused of sexual harassment and misconduct evade accountability, even when administrators or investigators decide that student complaints are credible.
Voice of San Diego has spent the last few months speaking with parents, educators and former students about their experiences with harassment and abuse in public schools, and digging into employee sexual misconduct records from the county’s public school districts obtained under the California Public Records Act. School districts are only obligated to make records public when they involve claims that have been substantiated, and are deemed substantial enough to warrant public disclosure – a standard subjective enough that it allows many documents to stay secret. Records must also be released if an employee is disciplined for sexual misconduct at all.
The records VOSD has obtained so far include complaints, investigation and disciplinary records and settlements with employees or the students involved.
Within the stories we’ve heard and the files we’ve reviewed, some trends and gaps emerge. Opinions diverge widely over whether the existing system does enough to keep students safe from employee misconduct.
What’s clear is students who complain about harassment or abuse by a teacher or another school employee tend to face roadblocks at school, in the criminal justice system and even at home that can put them and other students in harm’s way.
For students willing to report harassment and abuse by school employees, the first hurdle may come at home. Parents may want to give the school employee the benefit of the doubt. They may think their child was mistaken.
Such was the case for a La Jolla High School student who told her parents longtime physics teacher Martin Teachworth touched her breast in class. Her parents “said it was probably an accident.” The student figured others would probably dismiss her concerns too, so she didn’t report it to the school.
Even if parents do believe the student, the school can pose additional obstacles. Principals or investigators interviewing the student may question their intentions, and even encourage them to think twice about making a report.
Another student who experienced inappropriate touching by Teachworth felt her concerns weren’t taken to heart, either. When then-La Jolla High School student Loxie Gant told the principal Teachworth grabbed her butt in class in the 2002-03 school year, she said, “He kind of kept pushing me to say that like, it wasn’t a big deal, or that it didn’t really happen. … I just remember feeling really like, kind of not believed right away, you know?”
School officials may also have a hard time believing a trusted colleague is capable of the actions reported by students.
“They are the vanguards in the community. They are the teachers of the year. They are the award-winning popular coach that have offended,” said Terri Miller, president of the Nevada-based nonprofit SESAME, or Stop Educator Sexual Abuse, Misconduct and Exploitation. “The monster is only revealed through the victim. To everyone else, they’re great.”
“A lot of the time, it’s the guy you least expect,” said Los Angeles civil attorney David Ring, who has handled sex abuse cases against a Carlsbad elementary school teacher and others elsewhere in the state. “Predators come in all personalities, but usually have a pretty gregarious personality because that’s how they get away with it.”
La Costa Canyon High School English teacher Matt Cunningham said teachers need to “remain vigilant and have to be aware this stuff is going on.” He told school officials when he saw a colleague and a student off campus at a park in 2010. His report spurred a school investigation.
“Just believe your kids when they tell you, and believe the signs,” he said. “You’ve got to take what they say seriously.”
When school officials do bring employees or students in for questioning, the quality of the investigation, and what approach they use with students, can make or break a case. Making sure students know what to do when faced with school employee misconduct is also important.
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.’”
Some students at La Jolla High and San Dieguito Academy said they feared reporting inappropriate behavior by their teachers, like shoulder rubs and sexual remarks, would negatively impact their grades.
Students involved in a sexual relationship with a school employee may also fear the consequences of reporting it, or not realize they’re in an abusive relationship.
A former La Costa Canyon High School student recently told VOSD she felt school officials treated her like an accomplice and not a victim when she was interrogated over a relationship with a teacher in 2010. She denied the affair at the time, but said she may have disclosed it if they were gentler with her and had offered her counseling.
By the time she went to police more than five years later, the statute of limitations for statutory rape had expired. No criminal charges were filed.
Elsewhere, records show school interviewers engaged students differently to get the truth when students were reluctant to share or initially denied anything inappropriate occurred.
They reminded students they are not to blame for encountering or engaging in illicit messages or physical relationships with a teacher. Other officials explained to students what they were experiencing was abusive, because students didn’t always see it that way.
When warning signs emerge, how schools deal with them and what records are kept can make a huge difference.
Voice of San Diego recently obtained a 2004 school memo showing complaints of inappropriate behavior by San Dieguito Academy teacher Donn Boyd surfaced years before student complaints were made in 2007 and 2017. Boyd, who reached a deal to resign June 30, was told in 2004 to “be sensitive to the discomfort your female students and their parents have expressed.”
The district produced no other records of discipline, nor the actual complaints referenced in the 2004 memo in response to VOSD’s California Public Records Act request.
Documenting concerns and findings can be key to establishing a case for employee dismissal or discipline that can survive an employee appeal hearing before an administrative law judge, especially when the employee hasn’t been charged with a crime.
The nonprofit National Council on Teacher Quality created a 10-step flow chart to show the California teacher dismissal process back in 2008.
School district lawyers estimate districts may end up spending $100,000 to successfully terminate a teacher who fights a dismissal, or $300,000 or more if the district loses, since the district is then ordered to pay the teacher’s legal fees.
Under existing law, schools can remove employees accused of immoral conduct from the classroom immediately, said Claudia Briggs, spokeswoman for the California Teachers Association. That some repeat offenders stay employed in public schools for years isn’t a sign the system is broken, she said.
Rather, she said: “It’s a sign that school districts need to do their jobs in making sure our students are safe from these types of misconduct. The law is clear about what rights the school districts have, and that is to immediately remove these individuals accused of these charges. They need to remove the individual right away.”
In practice, not all schools escalate reports of abuse or harassment to law enforcement.
Some don’t even alert the school district office, and instead keep concerns and investigations at the school level. Some local union contracts, including the San Diego Unified teachers’ contact, require complaints against employees be handled at the lowest possible level, though laws require employees to report suspected child abuse to local law enforcement.
Some student abuse victim advocates and victims believe schools should also refer employee-student grooming behaviors to law enforcement. This could include sexual comments, messages or touching that may pave the way for abuse.
Documenting concerns with multiple officials and agencies creates a larger paper trail that’s harder to lose and can help with employee dismissals or criminal cases by establishing a pattern of behavior.
Ring said in the various cases he’s handled, he’s seen school officials refer complaints to the district office about half of the time, and the rest kept it at the school site.
“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.”
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.
Cunningham, the La Costa Canyon High English teacher who reported a fellow colleague, is also troubled by the secrecy that surrounds sexual misconduct cases.
“It’s not like one school site tells the other. When this happens, information is not shared, which I don’t like,” Cunningham said. “Because of the way the legal system is set up, you have to be careful about sharing information.”
A state Senate bill proposed earlier this year would have required schools to share some information about school employees found responsible for an act of child abuse or sexual misconduct, but it died.
When a 15-year-old Vista High School freshman texted a school math teacher in 2012-13 he reminded her of her father, the teacher responded, “Or maybe like a boyfriend.”
Three years later, school officials discovered the same teacher texting inappropriate messages to another student, according to district records recently obtained by VOSD.
The district investigated the messages and several other comments.
In May 2016, Vista Unified School District officials told the teacher he would be suspended without pay for 15 days and involuntarily transferred to Vista Magnet Middle School.
“The personnel issue related to a recent District investigation, from which we have determined that your continued assignment at Vista High School is untenable,” the letter says. “This transfer is not disciplinary in nature, but is proactive and necessary to ensure Vista High School students will be free from harassment and intimidation, which is in the best interests of the District, students and parents. We also believe this transfer will be in the best interests of your continued employment with the District.”
The teacher denied the allegations and appealed the discipline, as permitted by the teacher’s union contract.
“To avoid the time, expense and risk” of further administrative proceedings or litigation, a suspension deal was reached in July 2016 that made the reassignment to Vista Magnet Middle School voluntary, and reduced the unpaid suspension to five days.
The terms of the agreement – which also required the teacher attend teacher-student boundaries training – would be kept confidential unless release was required by a court order, subpoena or law, like the California Public Records Act.
The teacher is still employed by the district, but his name has not yet been provided, because he is fighting in court to keep it secret. A superior court judge earlier this month tentatively decided the teacher’s name needs to be released to VOSD, but a final order has not yet been issued.
Elsewhere in the county, La Costa Canyon High School officials admonished English teacher Marc Sandknop in October 2010 after investigating whether he had a relationship with a student.
Records show Sandknop was reminded about “a number of reports” about his “relationships with girls who were your recent students,” and told, “Your closeness to certain female students reinforces the perception that your girlfriends may have been ‘recruited’ while they were your students.”
Despite the concerns, Sandknop was allowed to finish the school year and was transferred to Carmel Valley Middle School the following year, where he taught another five years before resigning after a former student told police Sandknop molested her as a student.
Then there’s the exit deal for the Sweetwater teacher that allowed him to continue receiving pay and in which district officials agreed to say publicly that he voluntarily resigned, though officials substantiated sexual misconduct complaints against him. The agreement paves the way for future school employment with no indication there were problems that led to his departure.
In such deals, school districts often agree to pay employees to stay home – sometimes for months – before resigning to avoid the lengthy and costly state termination process.
Victims’ advocates call these tactics – in which schools enable offenders to move from school to school, sometimes with letters of recommendation following credible sexual misconduct claims which may or may not rise to the criminal level – “passing the trash.”
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.
Miller’s group, SESAME, helped write the bill. She calls “passing the trash” “deliberate child endangerment. … One predator can have as many as 73 victims in lifetime.”
The California Teachers Association, the American Civil Liberties Union and others opposed the bill, citing due process concerns for employees.
Over the years, the CTA has opposed other efforts to change how teacher sexual misconduct cases are handled, but supported a 2014 law that streamlined dismissal proceedings for teachers accused of egregious misconduct, like child abuse, sex abuse and certain drug offenses.
Briggs, the CTA spokeswoman, pointed out that there are already processes in place that require teacher misconduct to be reported to the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing, or CTC.
“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.”
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.
Once such reports are received, the commission takes a variety of steps to determine whether to open an investigation, and whether to take action against the teacher’s credential by suspending or revoking it. The commission’s review and investigation process can take several months, and during that time, nothing about the review is posted publicly.
A report released April 30 by the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office said the median time spent by the teacher commission investigating teacher misconduct was 414 days.
Once a decision is made, educators can appeal it to the Department of Justice, which can settle a case or argue it before an administrative law judge. Educator appeals have grown in recent years, and DOJ attorneys have not kept pace, leading to a backlog. The same LAO report found the median time taken by the DOJ to process a teacher misconduct appeals case is 631 days.
“Together, CTC and DOJ are taking a combined 1,045 days to close out a teacher misconduct appeals case,” the report says.
Statewide from fiscal year 2009 to March 2018, the CTC received 765 educator misconduct reports from schools, according to data VOSD obtained through a public records request. During that same timeframe, the commission took disciplinary action on 301 teaching credentials, for an action rate of roughly 39 percent.
Disciplinary actions may include revocations, suspensions, public reprovals, private admonitions, probation or credential denials.
San Diego County schools made 235 of those misconduct reports, or approximately 31 percent, the data shows. Some 137 San Diego educators faced credential disciplinary action during the same timeframe, for an action rate of about 58 percent.
The misconduct reported for the remaining 98 San Diego County teachers who weren’t disciplined often remains secret, unless unearthed in a civil or criminal case, or through a public records request.
To see a list of the teacher misconduct reports made by local schools, and the number of credential disciplinary actions taken, click here.
Though the government does not maintain a federal database of credential disciplinary actions taken against teachers, a private database exists called NASDTEC.
Schools that pay for access to the database can search for past employee credential actions nationally, which can be especially helpful when hiring someone from out of state.
From 1970 to 2018, the national database received 90,407 credential action reports, most of them for revocations, NASDTEC numbers show.
But the information provided to schools isn’t detailed and news reports have revealed widespread problems with the system, which relies on state teacher credential commissions to self-report accurately. A 2016 USA Today investigation found 9,000 disciplined teachers were missing from the system. The reporting sparked audits and reforms, though discrepancies remain.
For instance, what each state considers a revocable offense varies, said Phillip S. Rogers, executive director of NASDTEC. In some states, not paying for child support can cause a teacher to lose his or her license. Other revocations can be contract-related, like if someone walks out on the job.
Those who pay for access also don’t get a ton of details. It’s just “meant to be an alert,” Rogers said.
Members are told whether the educator’s license was suspended, revoked or denied, if it was suspended in the past and reissued, or if it was surrendered by the educator. Further information about the offense and documents aren’t shared.
What’s more, state teacher credentialing commissions don’t submit information to the database until a decision is final. The months-long or years-long lag time leaves plenty of room for schools to hire offenders into new positions.
Still, Rogers said NASDTEC exists to close a gap in the system.
“If it’s a criminal issue, you will find it in a criminal background check. Since most of these are handled administratively, that’s why this is a hole, and why districts need to be aware of it.”