It’s Not Always Clear Where School Police’s Role Ends and SDPD’s Begins
San Diego Unified’s police force has sometimes taken the lead on responding to and investigating complaints of sexual abuse in schools, even though California law makes clear that’s SDPD’s job.
When it comes to who should take the lead on investigating suspected child abuse cases within local schools, California law is clear: It’s the job of the local police department – even if the school district employs its own police officers.
An agreement between San Diego Unified, which has its own police force, and the San Diego Police Department reinforces that arrangement, and says SDPD should be involved in investigations from the beginning.
But an ongoing Voice of San Diego investigation into sexual misconduct in local public schools has found that in numerous instances, San Diego Unified’s police force has sometimes taken the lead on responding to and investigating complaints of sexual abuse.
In some cases, it’s hazy when exactly San Diego Unified police involved SDPD. In one case, school police didn’t notify SDPD at all.
The San Diego Unified police department is a fully accredited police agency with 38 full-time sworn police officers and has additional support staff, according to its website.
California is one of a few states in which school districts can run their own police departments. School police are real police, and the district reasons that by having its own officers, they can respond quickly to threats and disruptions.
Most of the crime school police officers respond to is vandalism and theft. But San Diego Unified police officers are also typically the first law enforcement officers called in to deal with reports of abuse or misconduct.
SDPD Lt. Shawn Takeuchi said it is typical for San Diego Unified officials to contact the San Diego Unified police department when a criminal allegation is discovered. He said that San Diego Unified police document initial reports and statements no differently than how SDPD officers would respond.
Takeuchi said since the San Diego Unified police department is a smaller agency, SDPD is sometimes better equipped to handle complex investigations such as child abuse, sex crimes and homicides.
Maureen Magee, a spokeswoman for the district, said that the San Diego Unified School District police department promptly contacts the San Diego Police Department to refer child abuse cases. And in accordance with the department’s agreement with SDPD, school police report sexual abuse claims to the SDPD, Magee said.
“School police are mandated reporters and must report all suspected child abuse to CPS, which makes the determination on notifying SDPD,” Magee said.
Magee declined VOSD’s request to interview San Diego Unified Police Chief Michael Marquez for this story.
Earlier this month, the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing revoked former La Jolla High School physics teacher Martin Teachworth’s teaching credential for misconduct.
But student complaints from both 2003 and 2013 were never referred to SDPD by San Diego Unified police, as required by state law. School officials reported numerous molestation complaints against Teachworth to school police, which took the lead on documenting and investigating the complaints.
In 2003, a student complained that Teachworth stuck his hand down her pants. School officials reported the incident to school police. School police substantiated that allegation and noted, “The investigation findings showed the case to be criminal in nature,” according to records obtained by VOSD.
Yet school police closed the case “because the allegation was not sexual in nature,” records show.
It’s still not clear why police thought the teacher’s actions might have constituted a crime, yet took no further action against him and did not involve SDPD.
Shelburne also reported to school police in February 2003 that a female student had alleged Teachworth “touched her on her posterior,” according to a memo from Shelburne to the district’s head of human resources.
Then in 2013, new complaints about Teachworth surfaced. Then-La Jolla High School principal Dana Shelburne called school police to look into the claims, according to a summary of actions taken released to VOSD.
San Diego Unified police took the helm on documenting both complaints and their investigation found the 2003 incident rose “to level of criminal prosecution,” according to a note written by former human resource officer James Jimenez.
But despite the school police department substantiating complaints against him and district officials’ belief that Teachworth’s behavior might have violated the law, the records show that “no known [administrative] action took place.”
Jim Pilling worked for city schools’ police force from 1975 to 2000. Before that, Pilling worked for the San Diego Police Department’s juvenile division for 10 years.
Pilling told VOSD he did not investigate Teachworth himself, but he recalls some colleagues looking into allegations by students of unwanted touching by Teachworth, as well as claims he spent one-on-one time with them on at least three occasions. When Pilling saw the district initially claim no record of any complaints existed before 2016, he thought, “The district was covering up some of the allegations,” he said. “They should have gone into those records of school police.”
He said all school police lieutenants districtwide would meet weekly with the school police chief and deputy chief to discuss incidents and ask if there was a history of behavior with any individuals under investigation. Pilling said some types of reported incidents may not have been treated as seriously as others.
But Magee suggested that doesn’t happen anymore. She said the San Diego Unified police department does not currently track claims or flag multiple claims against an individual employee. “Rather, any claim sustained by the SDPD that are referred for prosecution to the district attorney would be preserved in the court records,” she said.
Former San Diego Unified school police officer Bob Martin was assigned to patrol La Jolla High at one point, but told VOSD he doesn’t recall any complaints about Teachworth.
Generally, he said claims a teacher grabbed a student’s butt would be treated as sexual battery, and school police or city police may look into that. If employees are involved, an officer assigned to internal affairs would look into the initial complaint. Martin said he had that job, too, for a time.
“Depending on the seriousness of it, it could be misdemeanor battery. Then it turns into a child abuse situation,” and would get referred to SDPD’s child abuse unit, Martin said.
Yet in Teachworth’s case, that never happened.
At Crawford High School in January 2016, a Spanish teacher and volleyball coach was arrested for having sexual relations with a teenage male student in her classroom during school hours with the door locked, in her car and at her home.
San Diego Unified police Officer J. Serrano responded to investigate a child abuse case at Crawford High on Jan. 28, 2016, but district records indicate Serrano conducted initial interviews in the case that day.
“According to his police report prior to the SDPD taking over the investigation, on January 28, 2016, San Diego Unified Officer Serrano conducted several interviews in reference to the child abuse allegations,” the document reads. Records show Serrano interviewed a vice principal, school attendance clerk and the student before SDPD became involved.
Records show Serrano was briefed by two San Diego Unified police officers who told him that on Jan. 23, 2016, (the student) had gone to Sutton’s residence. The San Diego Unified officers said that “when (the student) received no answer at the front door, (the student) jumped the fence and knocked on the back door. Mr. Sutton’s boyfriend (later identified as Ben Wagaman) arrived and chased (the student) from the yard. Ms. Sutton and Mr. Wagaman then went to (the student’s) residence to speak with (the student’s) mother … After the visit, (the student’s mother) went through (the student’s) text messages and found a text from Ms. Sutton to (the student) that stated, ‘I love you.’”
Serrano notified the San Diego Police Department based on that information and interviews with a school vice principal, who said he obtained a school-owned camera with a photograph of Sutton with the student and an attendance clerk who said the student’s mother brought the text message to her attention. Serrano also interviewed the student involved that day.
SDPD responded and conducted its own investigation, which led to Sutton’s arrest.
At Crown Point Junior Music Academy in November 2016, an elementary student told school officials that teacher Lou Grande kissed and licked her neck and grabbed her bottom.
Takeuchi said the San Diego Unified School District police department documented the incident and then referred Grande’s case to SDPD. SDPD did not press charges against Grande, Takeuchi said.
San Diego Unified administrators allowed Grande to take sick leave until the end of the school year before allowing him to retire. The district agreed to keep quiet about the incident in a resignation agreement with Grande.
Former San Diego Unified school police chief Alex Rascon said that during his time in the department, school police “worked as a team,” with SDPD.
Generally speaking, “The only time we investigate was when we had a complaint from the victim,” he said. “Unless there was criminal activity, we would not get involved.”
If a student complained about inappropriate touching by a teacher, “That should go to the principal, and then school police would investigate … But if the principal didn’t do anything, then we wouldn’t know about it,” he said.
An agreement valid until 2020 between SDPD and San Diego Police Department, however, makes clear that mandated reporters like teachers, school employees and other officials should not direct suspicions of child abuse to school police.
The agreement says that San Diego Unified police should immediately report any allegation of abuse to the SDPD Child Abuse Unit on-call sergeant to request assistance and “both agencies shall continue exchanging information to ensure accurate reporting.”
Ashly McGlone contributed to this report.