When the U.S. Department of Education opened a sexual assault investigation at San Diego Unified School District in December 2014, district officials said nothing about it publicly.
Parents districtwide received no letters or emails telling them the district was under federal scrutiny.
As the investigation continued for more than 16 months, San Diego Unified kept it quiet. On April 14, the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights closed its investigation, finding that school officials failed to follow federal law while responding to a parent’s complaint that his son had been sexually assaulted by another student at an elementary school and requiring the district to adopt reforms. But even then, district officials didn’t announce the investigation or the resulting settlement with the federal government.
It wasn’t until inewsource reported the investigation last week after obtaining documents through a federal Freedom of Information Act request that district officials publicly acknowledged in a statement that San Diego Unified had been the subject of a recently closed federal inquiry.
San Diego Unified wasn’t the only local district to keep mum about a federal sexual violence investigation. Administrators at Carlsbad Unified School District did not tell parents that the district was facing its own Title IX investigation by the Office for Civil Rights. That investigation, the details of which haven’t been revealed, is ongoing.
The federal government doesn’t require school districts to inform the public that they are the subject of an investigation. But the decision by both districts to stay quiet begs the question: What is the obligation of school districts to notify the public about these investigations?
“The school system has a responsibility to let the parents and the community know,” said Jules Irvin-Rooney, a Title IX legal expert who serves as the board chairwoman of the national nonprofit group Stop Sexual Assault in Schools. “Without that transparency, we’re not able to trust.”
The redacted documents the Education Department provided to inewsource don’t name the San Diego Unified school where the sexual assault happened. Nor do they mention the names of the students and school officials involved.
But the dates and descriptions included in the documents suggest that the federal authorities may have been investigating one of several sexual assault incidents at Green Elementary in San Carlos.
In one of those incidents, the parents of a student reported that another boy at the school forced oral sex on their son and demanded the same sex act in return. Last year, the parents reached a settlement with San Diego Unified after they filed a claim alleging that the school’s principal failed to properly investigate the incident.
On May 7, after reading inewsource’s story, Esther Warkov, executive director of Stop Sexual Assault in Schools, emailed a letter to the superintendent and board members of San Diego Unified, calling the district’s response to the complaint that sparked the federal investigation “deeply disturbing.”
“I call upon you to implement a campaign to educate students, families, and all stakeholders about gender based discrimination, unwelcome sexual touching, sexual harassment, and sexual assault,” Warkov wrote.
Irvin-Rooney said San Diego Unified and other school districts should see these federal investigations as an opportunity to teach parents and students about Title IX, the anti-discrimination law that requires school districts to protect students at K-12 schools from sexual violence and sexual harassment.
At the very least, Irvin-Rooney said districts should tell their communities that they are the subject of a federal investigation and that they are cooperating with authorities. In a few cases nationwide, she added, K-12 districts have notified the public before the investigations were reported in the media.
San Diego Unified’s communications director, Linda Zintz, said in a statement that the district did not make the federal investigation public because the Office for Civil Rights “did not request we notify all parents about this case.”
Instead, she said San Diego Unified and the Office for Civil Rights agreed that the district “would clarify our procedures in the annual edition of our ‘Fact for Parents’ handbook that goes to every household we serve.”
Zintz said those revisions will be posted on the district’s website by the end of May and published in physical handbooks over the summer. She did not respond to a question asking if the handbook would specifically mention the federal investigation.
Rick Grove, Carlsbad Unified’s assistant superintendent, said the Office for Civil Rights never required the district to publicly announce the investigation. He said the district wanted to protect the privacy of the students involved, and he questioned the value of making a general announcement that a federal investigation was underway.
“Our mind-set was, let the [Office for Civil Rights] do their work,” Grove said.
The responses from San Diego Unified and Carlsbad Unified differ from how a local university handled public outreach about a similar federal investigation.
Last year, the president of the University of San Diego sent out an email to the campus community to inform students, faculty and staff that the Department of Education had opened a sexual assault investigation at the school and that university officials were cooperating with federal authorities.
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