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472 Days and Counting: San Diego Unified Sits on School Misconduct Records

It’s been 472 days since Voice of San Diego requested records from San Diego Unified on substantiated instances of sexual misconduct. In that time, other districts have released dozens of records and state legislation is being debated in Sacramento to address problems brought to light by such records.

A San Diego Unified school board meeting / Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle

It’s been 472 days since Voice of San Diego requested records from San Diego Unified on substantiated instances of sexual misconduct.

In that time period, many school districts across the county have provided documents related to dozens of local educators – some voluntarily, and some after Voice of San Diego went to court to secure the records.

So far, those records have revealed troubling instances of harassment, abuse and at least one rape accusation. They have shed light on institutional processes that can allow problem educators to remain in the classroom.

The reporting led Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez to propose new legislation reforming how school misconduct complaints are handled by educators.

Based on the number of records provided by several of the school districts across San Diego County, it would stand to reason that San Diego Unified – the largest school district in the county and the second-largest in the state – would have a large number of these cases.

Grossmont Union High School District provided records on 26 cases. Sweetwater Union High School District provided records on 15 cases.

But San Diego Unified has only provided records related to a single teacher whose case was already widely publicized.

On Oct. 2, 2018, Jeffrey Day, the district’s legal specialist in charge of public records requests, estimated that it would take another 10 weeks to gather the records. That would mean they’d be delivered on Dec. 11, 2018.

Day said in that email that the district was “continuing to locate responsive documents” – a troubling response given that the California Public Records Act requires agencies to determine within 10 days of a request whether they have disclosable records. At that point, the original request had already languished 315 days with no response.

On Oct. 22, 2018, it seemed like progress was being made. Day said that the district had decided to release its records on a rolling basis, and provided a batch of records related to a single educator. But that educator, Toni Sutton, has already been convicted in criminal court in 2016 for having a sexual relationship with a 16-year-old student, and ordered to pay the victim more than $2 million in civil court – meaning the details about her misconduct are already widely known to the public and spelled out in court documents.

Sutton remains the only teacher for whom the district has released records. We know nothing about educators found to have committed harassment or misconduct who are still in the classroom, or who might have been paid to leave or given favorable recommendations despite committing misconduct – situations that played out across several other districts.

Dec. 11, 2018, the district’s own self-imposed deadline to deliver its records – 385 days since the original request – came and went without a word from district officials.

I reached out to Day for an update this week, and he wrote in an email that the Dec. 11, 2018, date was just an estimate, not a guarantee.

“We do not set deadlines or definite release dates for documents responsive to California Public Records Act Requests. We do try to estimate when those productions will take place as required by the Act, but that is all those dates are, estimates.  Unfortunately, that is not an exact science.  Producing documents is a process. Please know that although documents have not yet been produced, we are working on it,” he wrote. He also wrote that he now estimates the records to be delivered on March 15, barring legal challenges from the educators named in the records.

More than a year before Voice of San Diego submitted the request to San Diego Unified on sexual misconduct records, we filed suit in San Diego Superior Court over the district’s consistent violations of the California Public Records Act, including lengthy delays and requests that simply received no response at all.

The suit argues that the district “has abused its discretion by delaying the release of public records sought by Voice, and others, for extraordinary periods of time, frustrating the purpose of the CPRA and impeding the distribution of information to the public.” It asks the court to “order SDUSD to search and secure potentially responsive public records within the 10-day period permitted under Government Code § 6253(c). 3” and “to promptly provide public records and not delay or otherwise obstruct their release when requested by VOICE and every other member of the public.”

A trial is set for Nov. 1.

Kayla Jimenez contributed to this report.

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