The San Diego County district attorney is sitting down with superintendents and school officials across the county, following an NBC 7 investigation into how campus assaults get reported to police.
District Attorney Summer Stephan told NBC 7 school officials must be quick to report on-campus sexual assaults.
Stephan says they must call police or the child abuse hotline immediately.
Following an NBC 7 investigation that raises questions about whether San Diego Unified school officials are always calling police promptly, Stephan sat down with NBC 7 exclusively to discuss the current laws.
The district attorney said she cannot comment on any specific cases her office may be involved in, but she had strong words for people considered "mandatory reporters" working in San Diego area schools: They must follow the law.
Stephan said the law is very clear if there is an allegation of sexual abuse or assault on campus. School employees must call a jurisdictional police agency immediately, Stephan said.
Stephan said calling campus police is not enough to protect kids.
“The protection of victims of sexual abuse of our kids is a priority for our office,” Stephan said. “And if someone is intentionally trying to cover up or trying to circle the wagons and not complying with mandatory reporting, that is a misdemeanor crime that is punishable under the law.”
Two recent stories raised questions about whether or not the San Diego Unified School District (SDUSD) is always following proper reporting requirements when it comes to allegations of on-campus sexual assault.
One involved a former La Jolla High School teacher accused of groping female students. A former student told NBC 7 it appeared SDUSD did nothing to stop the abuse.
Four women who attended La Jolla High School between 2002 and 2013 shared their stories with Voice of San Diego’s Ashly McGlone. They said they were groped or touched inappropriately by Martin Teachworth, a longtime physics teacher at the school who retired earlier this year.
The Voice of San Diego’s coverage indicates it’s unlikely the San Diego Police Department investigated the teacher’s alleged criminal behavior:
“Most voiced their concerns to school administration at the time, but an investigation by Voice of San Diego found no records of their complaints were kept. Teachworth’s conduct was investigated on at least four separate occasions. The district removed him from the classroom just once. Some student complaints may have never left the principal’s office.”
Stephan said she cannot comment on specific cases but in general victim’s accounts of abuse need to be dealt with appropriately.
“It’s critical that when a victim speaks out or when there’s an incident of child abuse that it’s reported immediately because sexual abuse is one of the most underreported crimes,” Stephan said. “Victims are afraid to report in the first place. They feel ashamed. They feel that maybe there is something wrong with them. So, if they have enough courage and they trust someone enough to come forward, they should be believed and there needs to be immediate action.”
A separate NBC 7 investigation found reporting was delayed after an alleged rape at Lincoln High School.
Eileen Sofa said when teachers caught a student sodomizing her son in the bathroom at Lincoln High School, they should have called the San Diego Police Deparment’s (SDPD) sex crimes unit immediately.
In a claim filed against the school district and the police department, Sofa says that instead, two days went by before Lincoln High administrators reported the alleged rape to SDPD.
Stephan said SDPD must be called immediately and not campus police.
“It’s just written into the code that an outside police agency is called in order to provide more objectivity, and make sure there aren’t relationships with teachers or staff that may be responsible for the abuse,” said Stephan. “While we have a great respect for school police, they are there to respond to things that happen on campus, and they don’t necessarily have an expertise in sex crimes.”
Stephan said even if months have passed, investigators can recover forensic evidence from crime scenes.
“Our science is getting a lot better. We’ve gone back to schools and recovered DNA from months later from a stain on the carpet,” Stephan said. “What is important though is that we are able to get to it as soon as possible.”
Stephan said the law is very clear that proper reporting must be done immediately and that calling school or campus police is not sufficient in meeting mandatory reporting requirements. However, she said there is some room for improvement in clarifying who must do the reporting.
She said all mandatory reporters have the duty to make sure a proper agency is notified. She said it is not enough to notify one’s supervisor.
Stephan said she recently sat down with school officials across the county to make sure they understand the current law.
If they intentionally don’t follow it, she said they risk prosecution.
Stephan said: “Do you have to go to your principal or do you personally have the duty to report yourself? And the law is not very clear on that, so I think there are opportunities to make the law clearer, and also to continue to work together with law enforcement and our schools to improve the systems to protect our kids.”