As news emerged over the past year of three horrifying abuse cases in Bay Area schools, one common thread linked them: In Brentwood, Moraga and San Jose, school officials knew enough to suspect vulnerable children were being harmed, but failed in their legal duty to alert authorities.
Now, a survey by the Bay Area News Group of 94 local school districts reveals the problem of haphazard compliance with child abuse laws is far larger than those three errant districts.
Fewer than half the districts in Alameda, Contra Costa, San Mateo and Santa Clara counties that responded to the survey said they offer their employees the sort of training that experts encourage and the law suggests: annual instruction in how to recognize signs of sexual or other physical abuse, and clear reminders of the legal requirement to report to authorities even the suspicion of mistreatment. The survey results also underscore that vagueness in the law has exacerbated the districts' failings.
All told, only 29 districts said they have provided annual training about abuse and the law to all employees. The law strongly encourages training without saying how often it should be provided, but experts agree it should be frequent.
In their responses to the survey, at least 19 districts also acknowledged practices that clearly run counter to the letter or intent of the law.
Eight provided no training, instead merely notifying employees of their legal responsibilities at the time they were hired. An additional 11 admitted they had started more comprehensive training only this year, some after they received the Bay Area News Group survey. California law says any district choosing not to provide training must file a waiver letter with the state; California officials say no district in the state has ever filed a waiver.
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson, who reviewed the survey findings, called them "a serious matter regarding the safety of our students."
Saying he is deeply concerned about incidents in which school personnel have failed in their responsibilities, Torlakson, a former teacher in Contra Costa County, said, "These results confirm my belief that we must clarify and tighten the regulations and legal requirements."
Last month, Torlakson launched his own statewide survey of school district practices and said he would support a bill aimed at strengthening the state's mandated reporter law, which defines who is responsible for reporting suspected child abuse. That bill, now being prepared by Assemblywoman Joan Buchanan, D-Alamo, is expected to require that schools adopt child abuse training and reporting policies, and review them annually with employees.
The Bay Area News Group began its survey late last year after a series of incidents raised questions about compliance with the Child Abuse and Neglect Reporting Act. At the Brentwood Union School District, at least 11 employees knew but failed to tell authorities about an incident in which a special-education teacher kicked an autistic prekindergarten student. In San Jose, an elementary school principal in the Evergreen School District became the first school official in the state convicted of failure to report suspicions of abuse. And in the Redwood City School District, a teacher was arrested in the abuse of two 5-year-old special-needs students. Five staff members were fired because they allegedly knew of the abuse but did not report it. However, prosecutors dropped the charges against the teacher last week, because of a lack of evidence.
California adopted the reporting law in 1963 out of a concern that school officials, if allowed to handle investigations internally, might not do what is needed to protect kids. Any school employee who becomes suspicious of abuse or neglect is required to alert police or child protective services.
When that doesn't happen, the consequences can be severe.
"I didn't have to be raped," said Kristen Cunnane, a Cal swim coach who was abused by two Moraga School District teachers in the 1990s, one of whom had been the subject of multiple complaints to school officials. "My abuse could have been prevented if school officials would have reported as they were mandated to report by law. The culture of nonreporting and protecting co-workers over kids nearly cost me my life."
Cunnane, of Walnut Creek, has become an activist on the issue after telling her story to the Bay Area News Group last year. Already, her efforts have had an impact on the Moraga district, which now requires all employees to be trained twice a year and has created a position focused on child safety in partnership with neighboring districts.
Similarly, controversy is spurring change in the Brentwood district, which fired its superintendent Feb. 27 for his failures after the kicking incident. Outraged parents have pushed the district to offer regular training by the local Child Abuse Prevention Council, which they believe would be superior to what the district has previously offered.
"It's important because, obviously, there was a breakdown, a systematic failure of reporting," said Marie Fajardo, co-chairwoman of the district's special education Community Advisory Committee.
In the survey responses, districts' definitions of training varied widely, making it difficult to discern who was educating employees about their responsibilities and who wasn't. In cases where districts claimed to be providing training, the news group evaluated not just how they answered the questions but the evidence they provided to support their claims.
Districts said their training included: verbal reminders as part of back-to-school orientations for staff members, distribution of written information, and online courses or presentations by lawyers or child advocacy groups. Most trained new hires, many trained administrators, several trained teachers and some trained all employees. Training frequency ranged from zero sessions to twice a year.
Districts that do little or no training often blamed a lack of money. However, nonprofit agencies in most counties will conduct training for free, and no-cost online training courses are also available.
In some cases, questions emerged as to whether the districts were as vigilant as they claimed to be.
For instance, in the survey, the Mt. Diablo district in Contra Costa County said it trained teachers and administrators. The district later said it trained all employees, but could not provide evidence of that. Annie Nolen, the district's union representative for instructional assistants and some other classified staff members, disputed the training claims.
Nolen said she talked to many of the employees represented by her union and "nobody remembers ever getting any training."
"I don't think hardly anybody knows that mandated child abuse reporting stuff," she said.
Other districts appear to be misinterpreting portions of the law.
For instance, the law places the responsibility to report abuse to police or child protective services on staff members who suspect it, regardless of job title, and says they are not required to disclose their identities to their employers.
But the Dublin, Fremont and San Lorenzo districts say employees must tell administrators about abuse before notifying authorities. The New Haven Unified School District in Alameda County requires employees to "immediately inform their administrator" after filing a report, and the Luther Burbank School District in San Jose says only teachers, counselors or administrators should file reports.
All other school staff members should pass information about suspected abuse to those designated employees, Burbank Superintendent Jan Kaay said in an email. "THIS person is the one who makes any needed report of abuse or neglect."
The Bay Area News Group survey appeared to kick-start some districts, including the Jefferson Union High School District in northwestern San Mateo County, which acknowledged it had not offered training to its 504 employees, but pledged to start soon.
"I didn't realize that we were out of compliance," said Superintendent Tom Minshew, "and our staff will soon be taking this mandated reporter training."
What does good training look like?
At a recent Lafayette School District training, which was conducted by the Contra Costa Child Abuse Prevention Council, teachers were shown a video that included scenarios and child experts talking about signs of possible abuse. These include bruises, changes in behavior and repetitive injuries in unusual places such as on upper arms, backs of thighs or faces.
"The responsibility is great and the truth is, the responsibility may be yours," employees were told.
The Lafayette training walked participants carefully through the requirements of the law: Immediately report suspected abuse by phone to Child Protective Services or police and follow up with a written report within 36 hours. School employees are immune from civil and criminal penalties if they report properly and are not required to investigate their suspicions, trainers explained.
Torlakson, who is forming a team to focus attention on the issue and possible reforms, said he assumed a "vast majority of schools" trained their employees but that more needs to be done.
"Training needs to be beyond a one-time opportunity and refresher course," Torlakson said. "I've been extremely upset when reading those stories (of school abuse). I've brought those articles in for staff to see and it's heartbreaking to see the level of tragedies that would've been avoided if mandated reporters had done their jobs. I've been outraged."
Buchanan said news reports of reporting failures, including the Brentwood case, prompted her to propose legislation.
"The reason I am introducing a bill on mandated reporting is because there are too many such breakdowns," Buchanan wrote in an email. "And it is my hope that an annual review will remind employees of their mandated reporting responsibility, remind them that they have individual civil and criminal liability if they fail to report, help districts avoid lawsuits, and, most importantly, make our schools safer places for our children."
Staff writers Sharon Noguchi, Aaron Kinney and Katy Murphy contributed to this report. Contact Matthias Gafni at 925-952-5026 or Theresa Harrington at 925-945-4764.
The Child Abuse and Neglect Reporting Act, penal code sections 11165.7, details mandated reporting training requirements for school districts:
(c) Employers are strongly encouraged to provide their employees who are mandated reporters with training in the duties imposed by this article. This training shall include training in child abuse and neglect identification and training in child abuse and neglect reporting. Whether or not employers provide their employees with training in child abuse and neglect identification and reporting, the employers shall provide their employees who are mandated reporters with the statement required pursuant to subdivision (a) of Section 11166.5.
(d) School districts that do not train their employees specified in subdivision (a) in the duties of mandated reporters under the child abuse reporting laws shall report to the state Department of Education the reasons why this training is not provided.
(e) Unless otherwise specifically provided, the absence of training shall not excuse a mandated reporter from the duties imposed by this article.
(f) Public and private organizations are encouraged to provide their volunteers whose duties require direct contact with and supervision of children with training in the identification and reporting of child abuse and neglect.
Moraga: An example of LESSONS LEARNED
After an investigative report by the Bay Area News Group on the Moraga School District that revealed failures in mandated reporting stemming from a 1990s child sex abuse scandal, the district created the most stringent mandated reporting training of all those surveyed by the news group.
All 250 employees receive a two-hour annual training at the start of the school year with the Contra Costa Child Abuse Prevention Council, and principals spend an additional half-hour midyear reviewing the training with their staffs. Employees also receive "scenario training" by legal counsel. Some substitute teachers and other employees completed online courses through the California Department of Social Services, which provides free training.
Training was also provided to a recently formed district safety committee, as well as to parents at two workshops.
Moraga also worked with neighboring school districts in Lafayette and Orinda to create a child safety awareness coordinator position.
"The reaction has been exceptionally positive," said Superintendent Bruce Burns. "Clarity of expectations through education has been appreciated, as are the ongoing plans and interest to continuously review and improve upon safety measures."
A recent survey by the district showed 94 percent of parents agree or strongly agree that schools are safe, Burns said.
Brentwood: Policy didn't match practice
Although the Brentwood district has been rocked by a teacher physically abusing a student, that district appeared to be going above and beyond its legal requirements for training, in its response to this newspaper's survey. In addition to saying it trained every employee annually, the district has a separate board policy outlining the mandated reporting law and specifying the superintendent or his designee "shall provide training regarding the reporting duties of mandated reporters."
Superintendent Merrill Grant was fired by the board Feb. 27 because of public outcry after numerous employees failed to report a special-education teacher kicked a 5-year-old student and Grant merely moved the teacher to another school instead of trying to terminate her. The state's credentialing agency yanked her credentials a few years after she was convicted of the abuse.
Grant wrote in the survey that each employee was trained when hired and was reminded of the mandated reporter responsibility at back-to-school site meetings. But outraged parents have pushed the district to offer comprehensive training by the Child Abuse Prevention Council, in addition to online training.
"It's important because, obviously, there was a breakdown, a systematic failure of reporting," said Marie Fajardo, co-chairwoman of the district's special education Community Advisory Committee, which was formed in response to the kicking incident.
The board has also disciplined three other employees.
At the time of the incident, the district's employee handbook included an outdated mandated reporting law from the 1980s that has since been amended.