Schools in San Diego County have a problem. Many teachers, administrators, and staff are not reporting suspected child abuse to the proper authorities, despite a legal requirement to do so. And some who do report have suffered retaliation.
Miranda Escoto worked with special education students at south county schools from 2003 to 2018. Her last position was as a health care instructional assistant. In a yet-to-be-resolved civil lawsuit she filed in 2013 against Sweetwater Union High School District, she alleges widespread mistreatment of the district’s special education students.
One of Escoto’s first assignments was to work with a blind female student during summer school. “Everyone told me I would have a difficult time with her,” says Escoto. But right away she suspected a problem nobody else had considered — the student couldn’t speak English.
“I spoke to her in Spanish and she responded. I asked, ‘Do you want to speak Spanish?’ She responded, ‘Sí, sí.’ She was so happy and her behavior changed immediately,” says Escoto. “I told her I would speak to her in Spanish but that I would repeat everything in English, so she could learn. She was very happy with that.”
During the following years Escoto noticed more incidents of negligence. Describing a typical day she says, “Most of the staff would stand around chit chatting about what they were doing over the weekend while the students would sit there doing nothing.”
Escoto says she saw a staff member close-line a special ed student at Hilltop High School in Chula Vista. She saw another push a student to the ground. She saw staff at Olympian High, also in Chula Vista, emotionally abuse a blind student.
Escoto says, “A teacher at Bonita High would hold a toy above her breasts for a male student to try to grab. She would move the toy so the boy would fondle her breasts as he tried to get it. A co-worker told me, ‘That’s nothing. She used to bring another student to her house to help clean her backyard.’”
When a second co-worker pointed out that she didn’t have a backyard, Escoto says, the two started laughing.
“They treat the kids like animals. It was so hard for me to be there witnessing everything and nobody said anything.... One day the teacher grabbed my blind female student’s hand and sat her on her lap. She forced my student’s head against her breasts and patted her on the butt. I said, ‘That’s enough. I need to report this.’”
Escoto wanted to tell parents what was happening to their children but says the teachers forbade assistants from talking to parents.
She tried reporting up the chain of command within the school district but encountered resistance. She described a joint effort by school district and union officials to intimidate her into silence.
“‘We’re a team Miranda,’” she says they would tell her. She was told she had to talk to the teacher she wanted to report about the issue before reporting the teacher.
Escoto says undocumented students and parents were especially intimidated about reporting abuse or making any kind of complaint. “Illegal aliens don’t say anything,” she says.
“We know who you are, we know where you live,” she recalls hearing a teacher tell one student who wanted to make a complaint.
One staff member, who Escoto alleges caused one student’s butt to bleed by the way she dragged him around by his pants and underwear, was a vice president in a union, and others had friends or family in administration. “In that district there are so many people who are related to each other. It’s like the mob.”
One union official told her that as a union member she should be protecting a fellow member instead of accusing her.
Meanwhile, she says, her fellow union members were not looking out for her. “Teachers can do whatever they want to us [assistants.] Once they have tenure they are untouchable,” Escoto says. She says they ostracized her, spread lies about her, and gave her reassignments she didn’t want.
Escoto sued the school district alleging retaliation and discrimination. The case has dragged on for five and a half years. Twice she’s been offered settlements: for $12,501 in 2015, and for $46,000 in 2018. She refused both offers. “I have five kids and 13 grandkids. How can I teach them to believe in justice, to believe in the law, and to believe in the police if I give up fighting for justice for the students? I don’t want the money they offered. I want to expose the mistreatment and neglect special ed students are suffering. I want people to know how the school district covers for abusers.”
Escoto says for many years she was unaware of the law’s requirement to report abuse to Child Welfare Services or law enforcement independently from the school district. But even when she finally reported to them (a report that is supposed to be confidential) somehow the staff at her school knew about it and gave her a hard time about it. “That’s why everyone is afraid to report, they take your complaint and turn it against you.”
Last year, District Attorney Summer Stephan worked with County Office of Education Superintendent Paul Gothold and Escondido Chief of Police Craig Carter to produce a mandated reporter training video.
Gothold said mandated reporters include most employees of public or private schools including teachers, teacher’s aides, classified employees of public schools, and athletic staff. Clergy and medical professionals are included. The full list can be found in California Penal Code.
Stephan said abuse to report includes “physical abuse, sexual abuse, sexual exploitation, emotional abuse, and neglect.”
She added, “If you’re a mandated reporter, you’re legally required to report if you know or reasonably suspect abuse of a child. It does not require certainty the abuse or neglect has occurred.”
Chief Carter explained the two-step reporting process. “(1) Immediately or as soon as practically possible after knowing or observing suspected child abuse or neglect, you must call the Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-344-6000, or contact any police department or sheriff’s department (not including a school district police or security department.) (2) Within 36 hours you must send, fax, or electronically submit written form 8572.”
State law requires annual training for mandated reporters, which provides school personnel more details, such as indications of various types of abuse to watch out for. For example, a state guide on identifying and reporting child abuse says one sign of sexual abuse is if a child “displays knowledge or interest in sexual acts inappropriate to his or her age, or even seductive behavior.”
In the fall of 2017, a teacher who wishes to remain unnamed filed a mandatory report after children complained that one of his/her classmates was making sexually inappropriate jokes and drawing inappropriate pictures. Mandated reporters are trained to conduct a brief inquiry but to leave the investigation to a child protective agency or law enforcement. The teacher didn’t ask the student any leading question such as whether anyone was abusing them. The teacher simply asked why he was doing what he was doing.
The child told the teacher about something that was happening outside of school, which provided enough reasonable suspicion for the teacher to call the Child Welfare Services Child Abuse Hotline.
The teacher waited a half hour for someone to answer, and the person who answered seemed resistant to taking the report. She evaded the teacher’s question about the legally required follow up written report. But after persistent questioning the Child Welfare representative said she would email the teacher a link to electronically submit the written report.
That email was never sent. The teacher had a 36-hour window after calling to submit the written report to be in compliance with the law. The teacher took the next day off work, downloaded Form 8572, and prepared written reports for both Child Welfare Services and the San Diego Police Department.
That teacher could have been in violation of the law if had he/she waited for the Child Welfare email and not made it to the Post Office before it closed that day.
As District Attorney Stephan said, “You cannot be held civilly or criminally liable for making a report. However, it is a crime not to report.” Violating the duty to report is a misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in jail, a $1000 fine or both.
Forty-nine days after the teacher mailed the written reports the one sent to Child Welfare Services was returned. The address used came from the “Suspected Child Abuse Reporting Instructions” page from San Diego Unified School District’s website.
The Post Office confirmed the P.O. box number listed by San Diego Unified had been closed for nine months.
Despite informing the district of the outdated mailing address, at print time, the San Diego Unified website was still listing the outdated post office box for reporting child abuse to Child Welfare Services, nearly two years after it closed. Mandated reporter training is still a work in progress. The training provided to local districts by Keenan Safe Schools added information last year about the “grooming process” child predators use to test potential victims before they abuse them, including checking whether they are good at keeping secrets.
Chief Deputy District Attorney Tracy Prior says training is the key to reducing mandated reporter failures. Since the start of this school year the District Attorney’s office has sent over 20,000 mandated reporting brochures and pocket-size cards to schools across the county. The goal was to reach every school in the county.
Stephan admits her office hasn’t prosecuted any failure-to-report cases, but she insists if they receive a case they believe they can prove beyond a reasonable doubt they will prosecute it.
But such failure-to-report prosecutions are rare to the point of non-existence. A May 11, 2018 article, by the San Bernardino Sun titled “If child abuse is so rampant, why are prosecutions so rare for those who fail to report it?” found that, “From 2012 to 2017, fewer than a dozen workers in Los Angeles, Orange, San Bernardino, and Riverside counties were charged by county prosecutors with violating the so-called mandated reporter law. And because violations are only a misdemeanor, those who are prosecuted and convicted virtually always receive light sentences instead of jail time.”