Though establishing a mentor relationship with a teacher could be a valuable path for student learning, educators and administrators are expressing concern over the possibility of inappropriate relationships forming in the classroom—and they are working to nip the potential issue in the bud.

That’s why the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District is looking to update policy addressing sexual misconduct perpetrated by school employees, something it calls “a national problem.”

The discussion came before the SMMUSD Board of Education at its July 18 meeting. Staff proposed a change that would update “Student & Staff Interaction,” board policy (BP) 4119.26, which was formerly known as “Non-fraternization with Students,” to “a more expansive BP and a new AR [administrative regulation] that afford greater protection for students and staff.”

The process began a year ago. A focus group of human resources staff, risk management professionals and others from local school districts produced an initial policy and regulation. From there, a subcommittee of the SMMUSD Safety Committee reviewed them in detail and made revisions, leading to the policy brought before the board.

Gary Bradbury, a risk management specialist with the district, outlined a staggering statistic: “According to a U.S. Department of Education report, an estimated one in 10 students will experience school employee sexual misconduct by the time they graduate from high school.” 

The report is in reference to a 2004 study, which detailed that roughly 9.6 percent of students in the United States are targets of educator sexual misconduct at some point in their school career based on the most accurate data at the time. 

The perpetrator is likely to be an educator or coach and twice as likely to identify as male, with a median age in the mid-30s. The victims—the students—tend to come from low-income or troubled households, are bullied or marginalized and have disabilities.

The old policy was broad in nature; among other stipulations, it simply prohibited inappropriate relations “between a school employee and a student that may reasonably be perceived as unprofessional.”

The new policy touches on more specific examples, with an emphasis on boundaries between the two parties. Example violations include any sort of romantic/sexual relationship, singling out a specific student (an action that can be perceived in a parental role), showing inappropriate videos, using student restrooms when teacher restrooms are available and inappropriate communication of any kind—in person and online. 

It also defines the role of a mandated reporter. As a school district employee, an individual must report any violation of the policy to an administrator/manager, Department of Children and Family Services, and/or the local sheriff’s department. The reporter is given protection, with a district assurance that they will not be retaliated against in any way.

Board Member Oscar de la Torre asked whether the policy would apply to outside organizations who work with students on campus.

“For example, the Boys & Girls Club has a contract with us and is on our campus,” he said. “How do we ensure that the policy applies also to those service providers that work directly with our students?”

Bradbury was not able to address the concern, given that the policy’s scope applied to “all staff within the district,” specifically. In response, de la Torre asked that future memorandums of understanding with nonprofits and other organizations working directly with students include “these types of policies.”

The board will vote to approve the change in policy and regulation at its next meeting on Aug. 1. If approved, staff will undergo live trainings to understand the extent of the change.

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