Are Students in the Redlands(CA) Unified School District Safe?

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WARNING: This story contains descriptions of alleged sexual crimes.

Last week, news broke in Redlands, CA that a high school drama teacher was arrested on suspicion of having sex with two underage students and possession of child pornography. Joel Everett Chandler Koonce was taken into custody on November 9th. While these accusations are terrible, what’s even more terrifying is that this is the third teacher accused of sexual abuse over the past five years and the number of victims coming forward is climbing.

Koonce allegedly engaged in sex acts with the two female students from 2016, beginning when they were 16 years old, through 2018. Koonce was suspended by Redlands Unified School District in October 2017 and fired a month later, but the alleged sexual relationships continued into 2018, police said in a news release.

According to local news,

“Problems with Koonce began in July 2017 with performance issues that had nothing to do with sexual misconduct, then escalated in October 2017, when an employee reported Koonce for alleged misconduct involving a student. A report was filed with child protective services, then the Redlands Police Department, and Koonce was suspended. But, at the time, the investigation could not corroborate any criminal wrongdoing.

The following month, Koonce was fired.”

But as mentioned before, this is all the more glaring because Koonce is the third teacher is a short amount of time to be accused of sexual abuse. Other incidents involved former Redlands High School teacher Kevin Patrick Kirkland and former Citrus Valley High School teacher Laura Whitehurst.

According to the Redlands Daily Facts, in August 2016, Redlands Unified settled a civil lawsuit with one of Whitehurst’s victims, whose child she bore, for $6 million. That settlement came four months after Kirkland’s arrest. Under a plea agreement, Kirkland was convicted in June 2017 of molesting four female Redlands High School students from June 2014 through May 2016. He was released from custody the day he entered his plea, after serving only less than 14 months in jail.

To say that these issues are plaguing the Redlands Unified School District could be a gross understatement. They have paid out a total of $21.7 million in settlements to sex abuse victims in their schools. After a review of 2,000 pages of police reports, depositions and internal school district records showed a pattern of school district administrators failing to address warning signs of sexual abuse and inappropriate conduct between students and teachers.

So after all this, I have to ask, are students safe in Redlands school? While I’d like to say yes, after hearing all of this, I just don’t know. I’m sure the district is now taking steps to protect their students more than they have in the past, but it’s clear to me that the damage has already been done.

When it comes to issues like this, schools cannot be slow to respond. Even more so, they have to be proactive. There are criminals that like to prey on vulnerable students, especially in the safe spaces like theatre departments. When the signs are noticed, students and their families need to trust that the schools will take action. It’s a shame that apparently the Redlands Unified School district is learning that the hard way.