Quick Take:

“I think we have this responsibility to do everything we can to make sure our schools are safe. At the same time, I think that it’s bringing awareness in the same way that I think cameras are changing our understanding of what happens in law enforcement. I think that bringing awareness is a good thing.”

Sexual misconduct involving adults and children entrusted to their care is an age-old tragedy. But this spring the topic has come into unusually sharp focus in Santa Cruz County schools.

A series of accounts of abuse at the hands of educators that the San Lorenzo Valley Unified School District superintendent termed “inappropriate and shameful,” many anonymous, began to spread on social media in March in the lead up to Sexual Assault Awareness Month.

Others were already simmering — in civil litigation, a private school’s internal investigation, and an ongoing criminal case.

Much about the recent flurry of abuse allegations remains unsettled. SLVUSD is pressing forward with an investigation into several of its employees. At least two teachers are on paid leave, and the district this week decided to part ways with one of its senior administrators who has been dogged for years by abuse allegations.

Santa Cruz County Superintendent of Schools Faris Sabbah is the top education official in the county, tasked with running an office that oversees and lends support to its 10 public school districts.

In the wake of this week’s news in SLVUSD and at Kirby Preparatory School, Lookout reached out to Sabbah and asked him to reflect on the wave of allegations, the persistent challenge of sexual misconduct in schools and potential reforms. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Q: How do you think about the problems of sexual abuse and misconduct involving educators and students?

A: As a school system we have a unique and very special kind of responsibility to protect our youth. We are the parents for these children while they’re in school, and so we have a responsibility to do everything we can to keep them safe. When there is somebody who betrays that trust and harms a child — it’s extremely painful and traumatic for the child and, and extremely disappointing for families and to the community. Because we’re doing everything we can to make sure that we’re placing the very best teachers and staff with students, we want to make sure that we’re doing everything we can to keep our students safe.

Q: Recently there has been a wave of school-related abuse allegations surfacing in Santa Cruz County, whether through social media, investigations or litigation. How concerned are you with what you’re seeing?

A: I’m always concerned when I hear about a situation where kids were hurt or abused. I think it’s heartbreaking that it’s happening in our schools because I think we have this responsibility to do everything we can to make sure our schools are safe. At the same time, I think that it’s bringing awareness in the same way that I think cameras are changing our understanding of what happens in law enforcement. I think that bringing awareness is a good thing. If people feel more comfortable or safe — and able and willing — to share a situation that would give us information that would hold people accountable and make sure it never happens again to somebody else, we welcome that, we embrace that, and we see that as part of our responsibility to keep our school safe. It’s unfortunate that sometimes that’s what it takes.

It’s also important to remember that these are exceptions. There are tens of thousands of positive, healthy relationships that exist in schools for every one of these situations of abuse, so I think it’s important to put it in that context that we’re about creating these healthy connections, because education has a lot to do with positive relationships, supporting, mentoring, encouraging, and so on. But I do think that as difficult as it is to hear about it, we are in a better place to know about it and do something about it, than to be in a place where a victim and a survivor of this experience is silent. So we welcome it, we feel it’s our responsibility to address it and do everything that we can to hold people accountable and make sure that our students are as safe as possible.

Q: Many of these allegations center on one relatively small Santa Cruz County school district, San Lorenzo Valley Unified. What do you make of that?

A: It’s important to note that what we’ve seen — and not only here locally, but in other areas — is that there is a kind of a domino effect that takes place within a community. And I think that that could be part of this.

If we did feel like the district was not taking this seriously and not doing their due diligence and investigating, addressing and communicating effectively, we would definitely work with a superintendent and see how we could help them make sure that they were doing that. I have checked in with them. We’re not involved in this investigation, but we also feel like we’re seeing that they are taking very deliberate action to address the situation, that they are taking these allegations very seriously, they’ve been communicating with the community about it.

Q: Have schools changed how they approach these kinds of abuse allegations?

A: Over the years — not only in education but in general — I think there’s a bigger commitment to transparency, as much as possible, within the context of personnel issues when it comes to not trying to sweep things under the rug. I think that we’re seeing, over the years, a much more assertive response — putting people on administrative leave immediately, conducting investigations involving third parties, if necessary. And I think that’s something that we have to be doing. I also think that awareness and willingness to communicate the abuse has increased as well.

Q: What about the role of social media?

A: It’s obviously much more public. Where in the past, you could yell at the top of your lungs and only 10 people would hear you screaming, now if you post something on Instagram, there could be a million people listening to you. So I think that the power that comes with that — and then when other people see that, and maybe they are now willing to tell their story, it creates a bit of a domino effect that opens doors for that.

It also makes it challenging sometimes for the investigations because there are cases where we find out that what has been commented were exaggerations. And that’s why you have to conduct an investigation. We have to be very careful, because sometimes with anonymous commentary, as is well known — on the internet, people can say things that are not totally accurate. And so that’s why it’s really important for us to be able to get to a human being who has been a witness or a part, or has been a victim of the situation for us to be able to determine the details so that we’re able to act appropriately.

Q: Do you see any persistent challenges around identifying and preventing this kind of abuse in schools?

A: One of the difficulties in our ability to address this terrible problem is that people don’t always report it. And so it becomes an issue of, if we don’t know about it, we’re not able to report it. And if somebody doesn’t have any criminal history when we hire them, it’s impossible for us to know that they’re there, they may come from a position where there has been a problem. So that’s one aspect of the challenge.

I also think that there is a siloization challenge that we face in education, as well as in other industries, which is that when you come from another school district or another field, generally speaking, none of the human resource — personnel — issues follow you. What I mean by that is when we hire somebody, we conduct a background check, which usually is through the Department of Justice, the FBI. We do reference checks, we call people, we get letters of recommendation.

But because it’s a personnel issue, the school district or the organization where the person is leaving, generally is unable to report personnel issues that they have on file with that person. That makes it extremely difficult, because it’s almost like somebody pushes the reset button for that person, and they come in with a clean slate. So that makes it difficult because it’s not a continuous process. And when we become aware of a situation that happened in another school district, we’re only able to look at the experience that we had with a person here. Having somebody who goes from one place to another place makes it more difficult for us to be able to track a pattern that may exist.

Q: So what needs to change?

A: I do think that a potential reform that could happen — and obviously would take some thinking about how to do that while protecting people’s privacy — would be to create a mechanism where if there is inappropriate conduct that’s taking place, that the school district could become aware of it when they’re looking to hire somebody. Because if a district is motivated to have somebody move on, because they are an ineffective employee, or has conducted inappropriate behavior of some kind, there’s a motivation to have them go elsewhere. It’s possible — and it’s unethical — but it’s possible for a school district to give that person a positive reference check. And what that means is that the receiving district has no awareness of the fact that this person has some issues.

We also need to continue to open doors to reduce the challenges, or obstacles, that people would face in making reports. That’s having an accountability system for us to ensure that we’re following up and addressing these issues. We have to be thinking about it from an equitable point of view, which is that many times the folks that are more likely to share a concern are coming from better-off families, and other families of poverty are less likely to share a concern or make a report of some kind. That tells me that we have to do a better job in making sure that our systems are equitable and accessible to all people, and that we’re not allowing situations to go unresolved because folks don’t feel like they have access, or leverage, or a voice in the system to be able to speak up.

We want your feedback

What needs to change with the current system? How can superintendents in individual districts set up better safeguards to protect students? If you’re a parent, do you have concerns about proper boundaries being set between teachers/coaches and kids? Send us an email to news@lookoutlocal.com

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Follow Nick Ibarra on: Twitter. Ibarra has a track record of reporting that has shone light into almost every corner of Santa Cruz County. Raised in the Santa Cruz Mountains, he came to journalism from...