The Learning Curve: Sex Abuse Task Force Proposes More Training, Not Substantial Policy Change | Voice of San Diego

Education

The Learning Curve: Sex Abuse Task Force Proposes More Training, Not Substantial Policy Change

A San Diego Unified task force made 19 recommendations on how the district could better handle sexual misconduct complaints. The key recommendation is the district will “create a culture of reporting” through new and improved trainings.

Loxie Gant is one of four women who says physics teacher Martin Teachworth harassed them when they were students at La Jolla High School. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Voice of San Diego has reported on countless cases of sexual misconduct in schools over the last two years. That investigation made clear that school districts often add insult to traumatic injury by covering up bad behavior or badly mishandling investigations. And they regularly sign non-disclosure agreements with perpetrators, who then get to go on teaching in other school districts.

Our earliest reporting involved a La Jolla High teacher named Martin Teachworth, whose reputation was so well known some students called him “Touchworth.” One of the women who went on the record about her experience with Teachworth was Loxie Gant, who has since become a vocal advocate, pushing school districts to reform their practices.

Gant pressured San Diego Unified School District to form a task force to examine sexual abuse in schools last September. And just this week, the task force released its final report and recommendations. The report was not exactly full of piercing self-awareness or bold recommendations for change. But it does propose new training that could help make district staff aware of their responsibility to report suspected abuse.

Let’s start with Gant: She quit the committee after its second meeting. Gant had produced several suggestions, which she says would have done more to keep children safe and cost the district zero money. But almost immediately, at least by her account, it became obvious district officials were not interested in meaningful change.

Gant remembers telling board trustee Richard Barrera: “‘I’m done, I resign. Nothing is being done. This is a dog and pony show. They’re gonna make a YouTube video saying this is the greatest thing since sliced bread. And that’ll be it.’”

Barrera confirmed that Gant told him she no longer wanted to participate in the committee. But the two of them continued to talk and Barrera said he worked to get some of her ideas into the recommendations.

Gant said her proposal contained several central components. One: Investigations into misconduct should be conducted by a third party, not the district. Two: A trained detective should make first contact with victims, not a regular beat cop. Three: Parents must be notified of incidents involving their children. Four: Survivors should undergo a forensic interview at Rady Children’s Hospital by a trained professional.

Some version of two of those suggestions made it into the final proposal. The district plans to notify parents when an investigation involving their child had concluded. (This had not always been standard practice in the past.)

Also the report says the district “should ensure, to the best of its jurisdictional authority,” that every student who needs a forensic interview will get one. (Forensic interviews are structured conversations, specifically designed to illicit information from children and avoid leading questions.)

The task force made 19 recommendations. The key recommendation is the district will “create a culture of reporting” through new and improved trainings. Other recommendations were vague and consisted of future plans to revise procedures. Others simply mention laws and policies that are already on the books.

For instance, one recommendation suggests that complaints of sexual misconduct should be handled by the district’s internal Quality Assurance Office. But records obtained in our previous reporting show that office was already handling investigations into sexual misconduct.

In fact, the Quality Assurance Office was created in 2013 to investigate concerns from students, families and staff. Complaints have been raised in the past that the office whitewashed and ignored problems brought to its attention.

The recommendations also suggest school staff, such as principals and vice principals, should not investigate misconduct claims against their subordinates. But principals were already legally barred from investigating such complaints.

That’s why, said Barrera, implementing new and improved trainings is one of the most important recommendations in the report. Lots of great policies and procedures have been on the books, he said, but they haven’t necessarily been followed.

He brought up a recent example from San Diego High, where a teacher recently pleaded guilty to sexually abusing a 15-year-old with special needs over a period of months. A new lawsuit alleges that administrators at the school had been warned of the teacher’s predatory behavior and did nothing.

Within schools, Barrera said he “doesn’t think it’s unusual” for school staff not to report behavior that obviously should be reported. That’s because, he said, staff tend to have lots of misconceptions about what should be reported. In some cases, they may think they will be held liable if it turns out the person they are reporting on did nothing wrong.

It is more like the opposite. Teachers are mandated reporters and can be prosecuted for not reporting suspected crimes. San Diego District Attorney Summer Stephan has never prosecuted someone for not fulfilling mandated reporter duties, but she is open to doing so, she said. Stephan has made efforts in recent months to inform school employees of their obligations as mandated reporters.

Barrera said the training has the potential to create a culture where everyone reports in ways that policies can’t.

Another promising recommendation of the task force is for the district to publish a yearly report on disciplinary actions against employees. Public access to such information has been severely limited in the past.

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