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Investigations Into Educator Abuse Vary Wildly From School to School

Coronado High School / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

More than two years ago, a former middle school student complained to Coronado Unified School District officials that water polo coach Randall Burgess molested him on the Coronado High School campus in 2012.

The district removed Burgess from the classroom for more than 200 days while it says an investigation was conducted, as required by state education code.

That probe eventually found the allegations to be unsubstantiated, and the coach was later reinstated to his teaching position [1] at Coronado High in 2017. Burgess held that position until he retired at the end of the 2018-2019 school year. (Burgess denies the claim, and has not been charged with any crimes.)

It’s unclear, though, what exactly the district’s investigation into the claims against Burgess entailed, and Voice of San Diego is currently in litigation [2] with Coronado Unified for records that would shed light on the scope of the effort. The district has repeatedly declined to release any details of the investigation aside from its findings, which ultimately clears Burgess.

Jeremy Lyche, a district spokesman for Coronado Unified, previously told VOSD that a formal investigation was conducted, but said it wasn’t carried out by a school district employee. The district declined to clarify whether the investigation was conducted by an outside agency or private firm.

The haziness surrounding what, exactly, Coronado Unified did to scrutinize the claims against Burgess underscores the lack of rules or uniformity when it comes to how school districts investigate teachers accused of misconduct.

Though schools are required to investigate accusations, state and federal law leave plenty of room for interpretation when it comes to what those investigations should look like.

Voice of San Diego’s ongoing investigation into teacher misconduct cases across San Diego has revealed a wide range of approaches and outcomes when it comes to how schools look into misconduct claims. Some districts have school administrators at the school site level carry out probes, some loop in district officials, others bring in outside investigators. Some interview the alleged victims, some don’t.

One district even used different methods to investigate the same educator multiple times.

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Though the California Department of Education website advises that Title IX coordinators – a designated school official responsible for compliance efforts under the federal civil rights law – are in the best position to handle complaints [3], sexual misconduct cases involving school employees far more often end up in the hands of school principals, district officials or others at the school-site level. Those school employees investigate the claims against employees who they may have close working relationships with. Or they can hire outside agencies or private firms to handle the investigations.

Though some abuse complaints require that outside agencies – like the state teacher credentialing commission, local law enforcement or child welfare services – get involved, the state Department of Education requires that each local education agency conduct its own investigation into allegations of educator and school employee misconduct. That means that a school still must conduct its own investigation even if local police, for example, are looking into the case. Each local education agency is responsible for determining the scope of an investigation, spokeswoman Cynthia Butler from the California Department of Education told VOSD earlier this year.

Neither state nor federal law currently dictate what an investigation at the school-site level should look like, though the federal Office of Civil Rights requires “an adequate, reliable and impartial investigation of complaints, including the opportunity to present witnesses and other evidence.”

Butler also wrote that anyone concerned about whether a school is following proper investigation protocols in abuse and harassment cases, or who disagrees with the findings of a school-level investigation, can use the Education Department’s Uniform Complaint Procedure appeals process [4] or submit a complaint to the federal Office of Civil Rights [5].

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In 2016, the San Ysidro School District hired an outside agency to investigate student allegations of inappropriate leering [6] by social science teacher Jimmy Delgado.

The Titan Group conducted an extensive investigation involving students who claimed Delgado made them feel uncomfortable, other witnesses and Delgado before determining the allegations to be substantiated. Following the investigation, the district moved Delgado into a non-classroom assignment in the district office.

Delgado denied the allegations and previously wrote to VOSD that he was the victim of gossip and rumors. He also cast doubt on the group’s investigation methods, and said they lacked qualitative research methodologies.

Records released to Voice of San Diego through a public records request reveal the district conducted two prior investigations of Delgado years earlier when similar complaints arose. Those investigations were conducted by a school principal and other school site officials. Delgado remained in the classroom for years following those probes.

Francisco Mata, a San Ysidro School District spokesman, told VOSD that the district “takes into consideration several factors including the complexity and scope of the investigation and the availability of district resources to conduct the investigation in a timely manner.”

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In 2016 and 2017, a physical education teacher at Westview High School sent a series of inappropriate texts [7] to an underage student. Tim Medlock sent messages like “Good night sweetie” and “Should I be jealous you have a new BFF? ;)” to the student on weeknights and weekends.

The student’s parents discovered the text messages and brought them to a school principal before filing a formal complaint to the Poway Unified School District.

The district investigated, and even substantiated the allegations, but the student’s mother said she still had concerns about how the investigation was carried out and the disciplined doled out to Medlock at its conclusion (he was issued a warning letter).

She noted that the investigation did not include any interviews with her daughter, the recipient of the messages.

“No one ever talked to (my daughter). She was the innocent child they all pushed to the side and never even asked her how she was and how did she feel about Medlock and did anything more happen?” said the student’s mother, whom VOSD is declining to identify in order to protect the former student’s identity.

James Jimenez, an assistant superintendent of personnel services at the district, previously told VOSD that the text messages themselves were enough for the district to consider in its investigation.

Poway’s sexual harassment and student complaint procedure says, “when an incident of sexual harassment is reported, the Principal or designee shall take immediate measures to stop the harassment, protect students, begin an investigation and ensure student access to the educational program.”

It also does not define stringent investigation procedures, but spokeswoman Christine Paik said “any report of employee misconduct is thoroughly investigated by both the District and reported to law enforcement when necessary.”

She said that the district still conducts its own investigations, separate from law enforcement efforts, “and if the teacher’s actions violate professional standards, appropriate disciplinary measures are taken.”

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School officials’ perception of the severity of the alleged offense can also influence how they conduct an investigation.

Though school districts are required to categorize so-called grooming by employees [8] – behavior that often precedes abuse and might seem harmless on its face, like texting a student, offering rides home or showering him or her with praise – as sexual harassment and investigate those claims like they would any other incidents of sexual misconduct under Title IX, many grooming behaviors can easily be explained away or dismissed by officials.

In recent years, officials probing grooming behaviors by a band director at Bonita Vista High School in the Sweetwater Union High School District and a teacher at La Costa Canyon High School in the San Dieguito Union High School District chose to keep those investigations at the school site level.

In 2010, Gabriel Huerta’s parents found phone records between their son and former Bonita Vista High School band director Jason Mangan-Magabilin, sometimes exceeding 2,000 minutes in one month. The principal at the time conducted an investigation by meeting with Huerta’s parents and Mangan-Magabilin, and agreed the teachers’ interactions could be a violation of his professional duties and responsibilities.

That principal then instructed Mangan-Magabilin to not contact Huerta outside of instruction, not to be alone with Huerta under any circumstance and to not provide car rides to or from band events, according to a district warning letter obtained by VOSD.

The district ultimately issued Mangan-Magabilin two warnings. It didn’t take disciplinary action until years later, when law enforcement conducted its own investigation into Mangan-Magabilin, who ultimately pleaded guilty to sexually abusing Huerta when he was a minor.

Manny Rubio, a district spokesperson from Sweetwater Union High School District, would not comment on that case, but said the district’s first step is to involve law enforcement and Child Protective Services, and from there, it depends on the case.

“There is coordination with PD and usually an investigation involving school administration, HR, and our internal legal team,” Rubio said. “Again, depending on the case and law enforcement investigation, there may be an outside investigator.”

La Costa Canyon High officials investigated teacher Marc Sandknop in 2010 after a fellow teacher at the school saw him off campus with an underage student. School officials questioned the student [9], but she lied at the time and told them nothing inappropriate had happened between them, though they were engaged in a sexual relationship. She also alerted Sandknop of the investigation. Years later, she reported to police that Sandknop had sexually abused her.

The La Costa Canyon High student previously told VOSD that the district’s handling of the investigation upset her.

“They were coming at me, saying, ‘We know something happened. Why don’t you tell us?’” she recalled in 2018. “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.” She said she believes if school officials had handled the investigation differently, the abuse might have been exposed sooner.

Robert Haley, superintendent of the San Dieguito Union High School District, said the handling of each investigation at the school site level is different and based on the circumstances of the situation. Although the district has a principal take the lead on interviewing at the site level, it is at the coordination of district officials, he said.

“If we reach a point of starting to draw some conclusions, we may need to have the staff member removed from the site,” Haley said. “Depending on the circumstances, we may involve law enforcement if we believe a crime may have been committed. Again, depending on the circumstances we may also involve our counsel.”

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Billie-Jo Grant, a researcher and evaluator at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and board member of the nonprofit Stop Educator Sexual Abuse, Misconduct and Exploitation, said a key part of the problem is that school officials are not properly trained to investigate child abuse the way law enforcement is.

“Trained is a loose word so what one person’s definition of trained could be different from another person’s,” she said. “A lot of districts I’ve been to have a principal or an HR rep conduct an investigation –not necessarily a trained Title IX representative doing the investigation. In my experience these roles aren’t necessarily are trained. They don’t teach this to administrators; it’s something they have to get elsewhere.”

Grant published research [10] this year examining the effectiveness of policies dealing with school employee sexual abuse and misconduct. She and Walter Heineche, an associate professor of education research, evaluation and policy at the University of Virginia, found that the tendency of school administrators to conduct investigations “should be managed either by providing them proper training in how to do that or by providing training that emphasizes they are not allowed to conduct investigations.”

“I want to blame someone for it and say, ‘Why didn’t you do anything, or why didn’t you do this the right way?’ but should we really be blaming administrators when no one’s been taught and they don’t have checklists of what they should be doing?” she said. “It’s a huge hole.”