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President Joe Biden recently nominated San Diego Unified School District (SDUSD) Superintendent Cindy Marten to lead the U.S. Department of Education, but despite her title, the education administrator has a long history of mishandling education policy and misconduct.
Not only does Marten want to keep schools closed in the name of COVID, even though science and health officials have warned against extending students’ remote learning, but she also has spent years of her career and time writing off concerns about sexual assault, violence, and other problems in San Diego schools.
Marten first became superintendent of the large California school district in 2013. Shortly after assuming her new position, Marten established the district’s quality assurance office, a $1.68 million operation that was supposed to provide parents, students, and employees a place to file complaints and request investigations into misconduct such as sexual assault in the district.
Most of the processes were kept quiet, but documents obtained by the Voice of San Diego in 2017 show that the office, with Marten as the primary decision-maker, was often criticized for mishandling formal concerns, granting decisions on cases before investigations were completed, and was even the subject of a complaint to the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights related to sexual harassment.
Under Marten’s leadership, SDUSD engaged in legal battles and eventually settlements over multiple sex abuse cases including the district’s failure to take action and investigate after a kindergartener was reportedly assaulted by a classmate in a school restroom. Another claim alleged the district did not take proper measures to address reports that a first-grade girl was also sexually targeted and fondled in an elementary school bathroom by a group of her classmates.
In another set of lawsuits, one in federal district court and one in San Diego Superior Court, Marten, along with other administrators, was accused of firing former investigator Michael Gurrieri in 2014 after he found that the “district was trying to hide sexual assaults on a local elementary school campus” to prevent the indictment of the school’s principal for refusing to address the abuses. Instead of completing the investigation, Marten decided to keep the principal on staff before it was complete, a fact other administrators admitted. The district eventually paid Gurrieri $375,000 to settle the case.
In 2020, Marten was named in a lawsuit against a former SDUSD physics teacher who reportedly groped female students. After SDUSD, under Marten’s leadership, repeatedly avoided disciplining the teacher, even denying that there were recorded complaints against him, the lawsuit called for Marten’s termination “due to her neglect and bullying of previous victims” and failure to report the teacher’s track record of sex abuse to the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing.
In another case in 2016, a student with an extensive history of sexual misconduct admittedly raped a special-needs student in a San Diego high school bathroom. Even after a teacher’s aide reported the incident, SDUSD while led by Marten covered it up, keeping key details of the case from the victim’s mother, Eileen Sofa, and only suspending the attacker for five days, despite the school’s strict sexual assault expulsion policy. The assailant eventually transferred schools.
When another teacher raised alarms about the student and the district’s handling of the situation a year later, Marten and other school administrators ignored his concerns, one of them even reprimanding him for repeatedly airing his thoughts about the sexual assault and inadequate discipline practices to the staff.
A former vice-principal in the district, Nicole Stewart, and Sofa were so concerned about the SDUSD’s mishandling of countless reports of sexual assault, violence, and other learning obstacles that they met with former Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to discuss a Federal Commission on School Safety and repealing federal directives aimed at using softer discipline like the kinds failing at Lincoln.
A year later, the district ran into even more trouble after its newly implemented “restorative justice” policies, “therapeutic approach” to discipline, and “blue-slipping” methods to avoid recording offenses were applied to a student who was caught with a knife on campus. Two weeks later, the same student stabbed a fellow teenager at Lincoln High School in the neck after facing no suspension or expulsion for his previous crime.
These new forms of discipline, which were implemented by many California school districts, were strictly endorsed by Marten. She personally used them to pardon multiple students after a violent incident resulting in an injured police officer in 2016.
According to Voice of San Diego:
In 2016, chaos erupted when a ‘play fight’ between students at lunch turned serious. A school police officer followed a student into the parking garage and shot him with a Taser. At some point during the struggle, a student struck the officer in the head, injuring him. Other officers who arrived used pepper spray to disperse the crowd of students who had gathered.
Superintendent Cindy Marten used the incident to display the district’s newly softened approach to discipline, and no students were expelled for the incident. Over the objections of the school police officers union, who said the decision set a dangerous precedent, district officials allowed the student to return to Lincoln the following school year.
Despite parents’ and teachers’ concerns and media coverage highlighting the inadequacies of the school district to contain violent students, violent offenses such as stabbings, sexual assaults, and fights continued and even rose in frequency, largely ignored and unaddressed by Marten and those under her.