12 Dec 18
Orange County Register
Rocked by years of scandal and $30.2 million in legal settlements over sexual misconduct by its teachers and staff, the Redlands Unified School District has adopted sweeping reforms designed to establish firm boundaries between employees and students.
The district’s new ACT (Actions Create Trust) Now initiative, which includes 10 measures to enhance student safety and raise awareness with employees, was outlined in a letter distributed electronically Monday to all parents of students in the district. The six-page policy is the heart of a campaign that also calls for school resource officers at each high school, mandated reporter handbooks for all employees, and additional school counselors to focus on the “socio-emotional” health of students.
Taken together, the effort signals a culture shift within a district that has long been accused by parents, attorneys and even police of failing to report inappropriate teacher-student relationships to authorities, covering up allegations of sexual abuse, protecting predatory teachers, and even obstructing police investigators. The school district disputes those allegations.
“There is more than just a cultural shift happening here within Redlands Unified,” school district spokeswoman MaryRone Shell said in an email Tuesday. “As with any new leadership, there has been a complete shift in culture, systems and approach and our newest policy demonstrates all of the positive changes throughout our district.
“We are taking the lead in establishing new standards and thresholds for reporting and dealing with questionable or suspicious behavior.”
The new policy restricts teachers and other school district staff and volunteers from “intruding on a student’s physical and emotional boundaries unless the intrusion is necessary to serve a legitimate educational purpose.” School district staff are now precluded from, among other things:
Touching students or initiating inappropriate physical contact without a legitimate educational purpose.
Telling sexually charged jokes or making sexual innuendos.
Interacting with students on social media.
Having personal contact with students via telephone or texting (unless for legitimate educational purposes).
Being alone with a student out of view of others.
Singling out a particular student or students for personal attention and friendship.
Addressing students, or allowing students to address staff, with terms of endearment or pet names.
Exchanging personal gifts, cards or letters with an individual student.
Transporting students in a personal vehicle in a nonemergency situation and without proper written authorization.
Romantic flirtation, propositions or sexual remarks
Sexual jokes, banter, innuendo, notes, stories, drawings, gestures or pictures.
“This policy addresses a range of behaviors that include not only obviously unlawful or improper interactions with students, but also boundary-blurring and grooming behaviors that undermine the professional adult/student relationship and can lead to misconduct or the appearance of impropriety,” school district Superintendent Mauricio Arellano said in his letter.
In the past, conduct that could have been considered the precursor to grooming behavior by predatory teachers might have been considered professionally inappropriate, but not criminally reportable, Shell said in her email. “Now, we have a more stringent threshold and a series of progressive disciplinary and intervention measures to curtail those behaviors or impose disciplinary actions leading up to and including termination.”
Increase in reports expected
As the new program moves forward, she said, there may be an increase in reports of suspected misconduct that makes students or staff feel uncomfortable.
“That is to be expected as everyone becomes accustomed to the ACT Now protocols,” Shell said. “We are encouraging everyone to act responsibly. We pledge that we will act responsibly to take each report seriously and to intervene through our personnel policies to deal with concerns as appropriate.”
Laura Whitehurst and Patrick Kirkland
The school district’s announcement comes after a 15-month investigation by the Southern California News Group that found school district administrators often failed to see warning signs of sexual misconduct involving teachers and students at its campuses and failed to report suspected abuse to authorities. Most notable were the cases of former Redlands High School special-education teacher Kevin Patrick Kirkland and former Citrus Valley High School English teacher Laura Whitehurst.
SCNG’s investigation prompted an investigation by the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing into administrator misconduct in the school district, according to an attorney who has represented more than a dozen current and former Redlands Unified students in the last five years who claimed to have been preyed upon and/or sexually abused by teachers.
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Predators are ‘more daring’
Outgoing Redlands Unified Trustee Donna West said Tuesday the new policy should reduce the ability of teachers to prey on vulnerable students.
“It puts responsibility more on teachers (to report) if they see something,” she said. “Something has to be done when we have predators who are more daring.”
Former Redlands High School teacher Joel Everett Chandler Koonce, 27, of LaVerne, has been arrested on suspicion of molesting two students from 2016 through 2018 and producing child pornography. He was fired by Redlands Unified School District last November and is the latest former teacher of the school district to be accused of sexually abusing students. The district has agreed to pay $8.5 million to four of his alleged victims. (Courtesy of Redlands Police Department)
West declined to comment on the string of settlements that Redlands Unified has paid out to victims of sexual misconduct, the latest announced Friday, Dec. 7, involving former drama teacher Joel Everett Chandler Koonce, 27, of La Verne. Four Redlands High students accepted $8.5 million to settle claims their claims against Koonce.
Koonce was arrested Nov. 8 at Ontario High School, where he had been working as a substitute teacher for the past year. He is charged with 15 felonies and stands accused of having sex with two underage girls, shooting pornographic video and nude photos of them and providing them drugs and alcohol, as well as molesting other students. Held in jail on $500,000 bail, he is scheduled to next appear in San Bernardino Superior Court on Dec. 18 for a pretrial hearing.
Arellano said in his letter that, in the case of Koonce, the school district’s reporting system worked. Koonce was investigated three times by police and school administrators from October 2017 to the time of his Nov. 8 arrest. He was fired by the school district in November 2017.
“Over the next year, well after his employment, we continued to report suspicions related to Koonce to CPS (child protective services) and the Redlands Police Department,” Arellano said in his letter to parents. “In fact, three additional CPS reports were filed by Redlands Unified School District employees in accordance with the state mandated reporter law.”
The new policy sets mandated reporter guidelines for employees to report to child protective services any sexual or other inappropriate conduct occurring between a staff member and a student they believe rises to the level of “reasonable suspicion.” It also requires the school district to launch an investigation when it receives a report of a boundary violation involving a staff member and student and to take disciplinary action when necessary if violations are found to have occurred, up to and including termination.
Employees who fail to take action and report also face disciplinary action, including termination.
Redlands Unified School District offices. (Photo by Cindy Yamanaka, The Press-Enterprise/SCNG)
Expert: Policy must be enforced
Billie-Jo Grant, a statistics professor at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and a board member at the Las Vegas-based nonprofit Stop Educator Sexual Abuse, Misconduct and Exploitation (S.E.S.A.M.E.), said the school district’s new policy appears comprehensive and in step with federal Title IX requirements. But she said that, for it to work, the policy must be strictly enforced.
“It does looks like they’re meeting all the key points of all the things they should be doing as a district,” Grant said. “But there needs to be that culture of reporting and accountability. They need to know it’s not going to be tolerated. It’s got to be practiced.”
The new policy is a step in the right direction, but has shortcomings, said Charles J. Hobson, a professor of management at Indiana University Northwest and author of “Passing the Trash: A Parent’s Guide to Combat Sexual Abuse/Harassment of Their Children in School.”
“I am happy to see that the district is trying to take corrective action,” he said. “In my opinion, the policy needs to be much stronger about prohibited behaviors from employees and the associated disciplinary consequences, and must include training for students and parents.”
The policy omits details explaining how teachers, pupils and parents can report alleged sexual harassment to the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights under Title IX, a federal law that prohibits discrimination, harassment, intimidation and bullying, said Terri Miller, president of S.E.S.A.M.E.
“Students have a right to learn in an environment that’s conducive to learning,” Miller said. “(The district’s administration) needs to make that very clear.”
Motive, timing questioned
Miller also questioned the motive and timing behind the administration’s decision to implement the policy. “Had it not been for the lawsuits, the public scandal and media scrutiny,” she asked, “would they have taken these steps?”
In his letter, Arellano criticized media coverage and defended school district administrators, including Human Resources Director Sabine Robertson-Phillips. While the superintendent claimed Robertson-Phillips had been “unequivocally exonerated” by the District Attorney’s Office, attorney Morgan Stewart, who represented victims in the Koonce and Kirkland lawsuits, said two lead Redlands police detectives in the Whitehurst case testified under oath that the HR director destroyed evidence and failed to report suspicions as required by law.
“You cannot praise a law enforcement agency when it suits you, and then call the officers from that same department liars,” Stewart said in an email. “In both Whitehurst and Kirkland, Ms. Robertson-Phillips had opportunities to remove abusing teachers, and chose not to do so. Under those circumstances, would any school district continue to employ her?”
Stewart called the new policy and security measures a “positive step,” but also said the people in charge of creating policy pose the biggest risk to the district.
“That is where they will fail,” he said, “because until you change the culture and replace those at the head of those failures, the abuse will not cease.”
Staff Writer Beau Yarbrough contributed to this report