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Feds Demand Action on School Sexual Misconduct. Will California Heed the Call?

Written by Ida MojadadPublished Apr. 17, 2023 • 4:00pm
An adult and a child enter San Francisco Unified School District offices on Franklin Street on Feb. 9, 2023. | Michaela Vatcheva for The Standard

Across the nation, schools have repeatedly hidden instances of teacher misconduct that, in some cases, allow educators to inflict the same behaviors on more students. 

San Francisco’s public school district has entered into resignation agreements with 19 employees accused of sexual misconduct since 2017, The Standard previously revealed. One of those teachers had left another Bay Area school under separate sexual misconduct allegations 20 years prior, unbeknown to administrators. 

To prevent schools from unwittingly hiring teachers credibly accused of sexual misconduct, federal education officials want states to tighten regulations. Though criminal background checks are required for most school staff across the nation, the U.S. Education Department warned it creates a false sense of security. In a July 2022 report, the department called on states to enact more protections. 

California is one of many states that does not explicitly prohibit the suppression of information about employee misconduct. And, nearly one year after the federal report, state leaders have made little progress in assessing what needs to be done. Gaps also remain when it comes to tracking non-credentialed school staff accused of misconduct, and in tracking records of staff from out of state.

In response to questions regarding potential new practices, the California Department of Education said, it “has, by statute and regulations, a limited role in local matters with public schools. Any change to this oversight would require legislative action.”

Further, The Standard repeatedly reached out to several lawmakers with responsibility in this area, to no avail. Assemblymember Al Muratsuchi, who chairs the Assembly’s Education Committee, declined multiple requests for comment. Representatives for committee Vice Chair Assemblymember Megan Dahle, state Sen. Scott Wiener and Assemblymember Matt Haney did not provide responses.

The silence from Sacramento doesn’t surprise Joel Levin, co-founder of the Stop Sexual Assault in Schools nonprofit. Oftentimes, he said action on this issue comes out of disturbing cases made public. 

“There is not enough outcry that the status quo is insufficient,” Levin said. “It just takes some sort of horrific case to get people's attention to make change, unfortunately. People’s eyes aren’t really open to it because schools try to cover it up.”

Decade-Old Push

California’s Commission on Teacher Credentialing (CTC) oversees educators and requires schools to report when a teacher’s employment status changes due to allegations of misconduct. The commission then investigates and makes a final determination, which is then viewable on a public database as an “adverse action.”  

The last major bill to change how schools respond to sexual assault, AB 215, was in 2013. That bill, done in response to a sex abuse case at LA’s Miramonte Elementary School the year prior, largely functioned to speed up the process to dismiss teachers for egregious conduct. 

Under AB 215, the Commission on Teacher Credentialing is required, upon inquiry, to disclose reports of egregious misconduct to a school district, county office or charter school. And since 1986, the commission creates a bulletin of updates to credentials for all public and private schools for review, allowing them to check if one of their employees is listed. 

“The CTC is aware of the [U.S. Department of Education’s July 2022] report and will participate in any efforts undertaken by the department to collect information regarding the statutory framework and procedures that guide California’s work in this area,” the commission said in a statement.

U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona talks with bus drivers on April 11, 2022. | Gregory Rec/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images

But the system shows some cracks. For example, the San Francisco Unified School District hired a San Bruno teacher while he was under investigation by the credentialing commission in 1999, two years before it resulted in a public reprimand that went on his record. 

In 2019, school officials investigated the same teacher for allegations of improper conduct with San Francisco students buttressed by a former San Bruno student attesting to him kissing and groping her in the 1990s. It ultimately took four rounds of student complaints and investigations in two school districts for the teacher to lose his teaching credential in 2021, The Standard detailed in previous reporting

In Connecticut, education officials may not enter into any agreement that “has the effect of suppressing information” relating to an investigation of sexual misconduct by current or former employees. Maryland, Pennsylvania, Washington and New Jersey are among a handful of states with similar statutes. In other words, these states have gone beyond what California has done.

Another Level of Secrecy

Another gap in the oversight system is the lack of oversight of “classified staff,” a category of school employees that include paraeducators, clerical staff and custodians. 

Accomplishing that may require a separate commission, which may pose a funding challenge. The Commission on Teacher Credentialing is self-sustaining based on fees paid by educators who become credentialed. Classified staff, on the other hand, are notoriously low paid

But the lack of a commission dedicated to classified staff may be an even bigger issue. Of the 17 settlement agreements The Standard uncovered, five involved alleged inappropriate sexual contact with students, while some did not involve touching students. But seven cases did not include information about what the employees—all classified staff—were accused of.  

“There’s no space for it to go,” said Cassondra Curiel, president of the United Educators of San Francisco. “If [teachers] violated the terms of their credential, there’s space for that.”  

U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona speaks at a conference in Washington, D.C. | Alex Wong/Getty Images

Even with proper oversight for every school employee in California, resignation agreements can remain a vehicle for secrecy. It took The Standard multiple records requests with the assistance of an attorney to unseal records in San Francisco and San Mateo County schools. 

“We support any efforts to strengthen the processes to prevent hiring staff with a history of sexual misconduct,” the San Francisco Unified School District previously told The Standard. 

California may be slow to respond, but Levin sees the federal demand for action as a source of hope. In response to a recent CBS report on sexual abuse cover-up in Southern California, the Department of Education said it is working toward tracking teacher sexual abuse in public schools nationwide.

“I don’t know how in other states how transparent they are for teachers dismissed for sexual misconduct,” Levin said. “It sounds like at least on the federal level they’re trying to do something about it.”

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