California doesn’t require schools to have policies spelling out appropriate boundaries between teachers and students, but not having those policies is proving to be a problem in court.
In several cases across San Diego County over the last decade, school districts have paid out millions of dollars as a result of lawsuits from students abused by educators who argued the schools did not have sufficient policies or training in place to protect them.
In 2015 and early 2016, a Crawford High School Spanish teacher and volleyball coach had sexual relations with a teenage male student in her classroom during school hours with the door locked, in her car and at her home.
But red flags preceding the abuse began months earlier.
Toni Sutton gave the student rides home and to school. Sutton and the student sent each other Facebook messages late at night. They spent alone time in her classroom so often that other teachers began to notice the student’s class attendance was lacking, court records show.
His mother found explicit Facebook messages between the two, and reported them to police. San Diego Unified investigated the claims, and Sutton was removed from her teaching position at Crawford High. Sutton pleaded guilty to unlawful sexual intercourse and oral copulation with the minor later that year.
James Doe, as the student is referred to in court documents, sued the San Diego Unified School District and Sutton for negligence, arguing the district failed to recognize and report those grooming signs before they led to the abuse in 2016.
He claimed the school district failed to take preventative measures to protect him and other students by not adequately training Sutton, or others who might have recognized and reported the abuse. At the time, the district did not provide employees with policies or training on how to identify or report grooming behavior that precedes abuse. Nor did it provide guidelines to parents or students on proper interactions with teachers.
A jury awarded $2.1 million to the student after he sued claiming negligence, intentional infliction of emotional distress and sexual harassment in August 2018, to be paid in part by Sutton and in part by San Diego Unified.
The same year, Sweetwater Union High School District settled claims from two students harmed by their teachers who sued the district for negligence, claiming it did not warn, train or educate employees about child sexual abuse.
In Imperial Beach, a Mar Vista High School student was sexually abused in the JROTC program in 2016. A substitute JROTC teacher, Martin Gallegos, gave the student frequent car rides and bought her lunch so often it became known to other instructors and students. The teacher and student eventually engaged in sexual acts on the school’s campus. The student reported the abuse to police in 2016.
In Chula Vista, a Bonita Vista High School student was sexually abused by a band teacher beginning in 2008. Gabriel Huerta looked up to Jason Mangan-Magabilin, who showered him with praise at band rehearsals, gave him his phone number and rides home from school. Those interactions evolved into sexual acts between the two on the school’s campus and at Mangan-Magabilin’s home. Huerta reported the abuse to police in 2016.
Sweetwater did not have a policy addressing appropriate adult-student boundaries at the time of those incidents – and it still doesn’t.
The district agreed to pay the Mar Vista High student $2.2 million, and Sweetwater and Mangan-Magabilin agreed to pay Huerta $650,000 to settle the cases. The district did not admit wrongdoing in either case.
Each of the students said in court that the teachers exploited their roles as mentors to groom them for sexual acts and that the districts did not do enough to prevent the abuse.
In these cases and countless others, educators initiated interactions with students that may seem harmless on their face, but later escalated into sexual abuse.
Text messages about homework or practice times turned into “good night” messages late at night.
Rides to and from school resulted in alone time and intimate conversations.
Friendly hugs escalated into sexual acts.
In each case, other teachers, parents or students noticed the teachers and students were spending a lot of time together, but many did not intervene or report their suspicions to authorities.
Many school districts across the San Diego region do not have clear policies addressing proper teacher and student boundaries. Attorneys say that leaves districts at risk.
Anthony DeMarco, a child sexual abuse attorney in Southern California, said many schools implement only the bare minimum: California’s mandated child abuse training. That training doesn’t do enough to educate what type of behavior might create a reasonable suspicion that an observer should report, he said.
DeMarco said that when he’s working on cases against schools involving child abuse, one of the first questions he asks districts officials is whether those entities have policies that address appropriate boundaries between teachers and students. If there is one, he inquires whether those policies are thoroughly implemented and communicated to employees, parents and students.
When school districts do not have those policies or do not make adequate efforts to enforce or provide them to employees, students and parents, a district can be held liable in court for negligence, DeMarco said.
“Every parent has to have their kids in school. They’re required to trust those people with their children,” DeMarco said. “We want to make sure the schools are training teachers that they should not be engaging in inappropriate activities like unmonitored communications or alone time with students.”
Maureen Magee, a spokeswoman for the San Diego Unified School District, said the district began to offer voluntary weekly trainings for employees last year following the Sutton case to help educate employees on addressing and recognizing sexual harassment. She said that initiative is the latest in a series of programs and resources the district’s Title IX office has offered to employees. San Diego Unified does not yet have a policy that addresses teacher-student boundaries, but the district’s electronic communications policy notes that employees should not have interactions with students on social networking sites outside of forums dedicated to academic use.
Jennifer Creighton, an attorney for the Sweetwater Union High School District, said in an email that Sweetwater has implemented new training for management and classified employees over the past few years detailing appropriate boundaries, including a training brochure and live training.
The district does not yet have a clear teacher-student boundary policy, but a spokesman told VOSD in February that it was working on implementing one that specifically addresses electronic communications between teachers and students.
Creighton, who also represents school districts across Southern California, said that in a majority of cases she sees, “the teacher accused of an inappropriate relationship had a clear background check, a perfect employment history, glowing recommendations and was the last person in the world anyone would suspect of engaging in an inappropriate relationship.”
While there have been situations in California schools where a school district should have picked up on warning signs, “in the majority of cases there are no warning signs and yet the district’s reputation is impugned when a lawsuit arises regardless,” she said.
She expressed skepticism that someone with the propensity to commit abuse would be deterred by undergoing training, but said training could help other school staff members identify warning signs.
For Southern California districts like Redlands Unified School District and the Los Angeles Unified School District, that’s true. Those districts faced blowback after numerous negligence lawsuits targeted their handling of child abuse incidents in their schools in recent years.
In response, the districts established policies that clearly define boundaries between employees and students following legal claims against both districts that accused them of failing to institute prevention measures to protect students against child abuse.
Diane Cranley, a child abuse prevention consultant who works with California school districts, said schools can protect students and avoid lawsuits by implementing formal boundary policies that identify specific behaviors that are inappropriate and unacceptable between teachers and students.
She suggests schools also provide training to help school workers identify the seductive grooming process used by predatory educators so they know when to intervene and report suspected child abuse to authorities.
“We’re raising the standards of care,” she said. “The more districts that have policies, the easier it will be to implement boundaries moving forward.”