Tightening teacher dismissals

It has taken a mess of lewd acts, criminal charges, and threatened lawsuits in Los Angeles Unified to spur calls for reforming the cumbersome process for dismissing teachers for immoral and unprofessional conduct.

Last week, LAUSD board members unanimously passed a resolution sponsored by board member Tamar Galatzan, who’s also a criminal prosecutor, calling for the Legislature to speed up state dismissal procedures (see item 16 of the board’s agenda). Democratic and Republican lawmakers, in turn, have been elbowing one another to be first in line with legislation that has yet to be filed.

Changes in statutes could fix some but not all parts of what has been a systemic failure to act on and follow up on credible evidence over many years.

Three former teachers at one LAUSD elementary school face criminal charges for sexually abusing students. One was fired last month after being charged with committing lewd acts on a 9-year-old in 2009. Another teacher, now a fugitive, was investigated for three cases of sexual misconduct against students before resigning from the district several years ago and being hired by Inglewood Unified, where he is now accused of molesting another young girl.

The most egregious case involved Miramonte Elementary third-grade teacher Mark Berndt, 61, who pleaded not guilty to lewd acts on children (for more explicit details, go here). The district investigated complaints about Berndt dating back two decades but failed to substantiate them. Information about the complaints wasn’t in Berndt’s file, because a clause in the district’s contract with United Teachers Los Angeles, negotiated in the ’90s, requires that misconduct allegations that did not lead to action be removed from a teacher’s file after four years.

Berndt was dismissed after the latest accusations surfaced in January 2011. In June 2011, the district agreed to pay him about $40,000, including legal fees, to drop the appeal of his firing. This type of settlement is common, not just in LAUSD, but in many districts, because appeals of dismissals to a three-person Commission on Professional Competence can take more than a year, during which time teachers continue to be paid, and the district can be liable for attorney’s fees if it loses the case.

For all three teachers, the district failed to notify the state Commission on Teacher Credentialing, which would have had the authority to pull the licenses of the teachers, whether or not they were convicted of a crime.

The resolution passed by the school board calls for changes in state law in cases involving unprofessional, criminal, or immoral conduct that would:

  • Discontinue paying a teacher during the appeals process;
  • End the prohibition on introducing personnel information involving charges of misconduct that is more than four years old. (This would preclude districts from negotiating away the right to keep the information confidential, as occurred in Los Angeles Unified, and would allow the state Commission on Teacher Credentialing to consider older information as well.);
  • Permit dismissal notices to be filed throughout the year (including summer) and shorten the 45- or 90-day grace period before the board could initiate dismissal proceedings;
  • Withhold pension benefits to any public employee convicted of sex abuse involving a minor;
  • Make decisions of the appeals board, the Commission on Professional Competence, advisory only, giving a school board final say over dismissals.

The resolution asks Superintendent John Deasy to make recommendations to the board next month on how to proceed. If LAUSD didn’t already have enough to worry about, last month the State Supreme Court ruled unanimously  that school districts can be liable for administrators who fail to act to protect children after learning that an employee may be prone to molesting children.

Trustees have cause for frustration. Three years ago, they approved a similar resolution calling for legislative action. While the Legislature failed to enact what the board requested, the issue wasn’t ignored. In 2010, Republican Sen. Bob Huff sponsored SB 955, a sweeping bill calling for changes in teacher evaluations and giving districts more authority to ignore seniority when making layoffs. It also would have given school boards the final say over all teacher dismissal cases, not just those involving personal misconduct and criminal acts. It  would have eliminated the positions of two teachers on the three-person Commission on Professional Competence, leaving appeals solely in the hands of an administrative law judge, whose decisions would have been strictly advisory.

Huff’s bill actually passed the Senate Education Committee, 5-4, but the Democratic Senate leaders referred the bill to the Rules Committee, and it was never brought to the full Senate for a vote – an action that rankled Huff.

Two Democratic senators from Los Angeles have said they would introduce bills on dismissals. Kevin de Leon plans to work on banning pension benefits for teachers convicted of abusing children. The bill would apply only to future cases; Berndt and other teachers now facing charges would continue to be entitled to pensions. Alex Padilla says he will introduce a bill on other dismissal issues sought by LAUSD board members. Meanwhile, Republican Assembly and Senate leaders put out a press release stating that “Republicans are standing with Mayor Villaraigosa and Los Angeles Unified to enact reforms to empower local districts and ensure that a Miramonte-like tragedy never happens again.”

It will be interesting to see whether the Republicans will tailor their bill to apply only to misconduct cases, based on the LAUSD board’s resolution, or whether it will apply to all dismissals, including those based on unsatisfactory performance, which comprises the vast majority of cases and was the intent of Huff in SB 955.

In returning to the trustees with recommendations next month, Deasy too must decide whether he favors a narrow or broad bill.

United Teachers Los Angeles and the California Teachers Association didn’t respond to my requests for comment on likely legislation. UTLA President Warren Fletcher has said the union would be open to renegotiating the prohibition on using old information on unproven misconduct complaints.

22 thoughts on “Tightening teacher dismissals

  1. Sue Moore

    I would like to see a clause that strengthens the position of teachers/aides, who bring possible misconduct to the attention of principals and school district administrators. In SDUSD there was a pattern of discrediting those who brought issues to the attention of administrators, and ‘Legal’ was overly co-dependent in moving personnel, etc. The person who raised the red flag could then be a target for others who supported/turned away from the alleged misconduct. (Nothing like a classroom visit from the friends of the coach/teacher who was involved.)  The action of union leaders in the schools needs to be clarified  as well.
    This entire issue needs to be removed from the possible collusion of school district/union/ and CCTC. Personally, after some of the questionable personnel decisions I saw/heard of, there should be a process that immediately offers access to an administrative law judge/panel, that is totally disconnected from the political machinations of the education system. Sorry, principals cannot be trusted to do the “right” thing in some cases, and the Legal offices definitely need an external protection. This “pipeline” to an external judicial panel should be provided to parents and students as well. The latter would protect teachers, should they be the target of a false claim by a student. (I saw that occur, too.)
    Is a minor defined as 18 and under, or, is a ‘minor’ any student in the K-12 system? Special Education students, and some students who have been held back/placed in continuation schools, etc., are in fact older. Those students can be quite vulnerable. Please clarify – because we don’t NEED any more loopholes.
    Wouldn’t it be a wonderful world if the system could i) be fixed completely while it is under the spotlight, and ii) children’s suffering at the hands of trusted adults was not a political football?

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  2. navigio

    “For all three teachers, the district failed to notify the state Commission on Teacher Credentialing, which would have had the authority to pull the licenses of the teachers, whether or not they were convicted of a crime.”
    would that have given the district any easier options?
    “last month the State Supreme Court ruled unanimously  that school districts can be liable for administrators who fail to act to protect children after learning that an employee may be prone to molesting children.”
    So now there are no more excuses, right?

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  3. el

    It’s my feeling that if the administration does their job to document, and the school board concurs, that the only appeal at that point should be if there’s allegation of impropriety by the administration (like unlawful discrimination or a false accusation). Even if it’s not 100% “fair”, working in an environment where supervisors don’t appreciate you is caustic all the way around.
    Making the process less expensive and less time consuming for everyone seems appropriate.
    I would also like to see a system where it is easier for teachers to move in and out of teaching with respect to pensions. Perhaps they can be allowed to pay into STRS instead of Social Security if they take a job after a certain length of service, or perhaps STRS can pay out to get them credit in Social Security. It seems to me that sometimes the pension system creates a financial straightjacket that keeps people from moving around when they’re ready to try something different.

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  4. pamzella

    Sue, that’s a very good point.  While I don’t expect that teachers that are in their own classrooms and working their behinds off during class, with intervention groups before and after school and on and on can be expected to supervise their peers, if they have a suspicion that something is wrong and that may be harming a student or students, anonymity as far as is possible should be protected, and whistleblower protection for teachers- and aides, too, as you point out Sue- who take the step.  And they have to have some assurance complaints will be investigated so the risk of putting themselves out there has some redeeming value.  Many people can create a hostile work environment for a teacher who reports suspicious behavior observed or told to them by students, from the alleged perpetrator, the friends of the perpetrator in many positions within a school, and even an administrator, whether friends or just annoyed that they have to investigate something that is going to add to their workload in complexity.
    And what about impropriety/illegal conduct by administrators?  Going above principals to the district is in itself enough to make a teacher’s life miserable afterwards, regardless of the motivation/issue for doing so, and unless the rules are spelled out for confidentiality/anonymity district administrators to follow, a teacher could become an unfortunate victim as a byproduct, how quickly we forget how like fiefdoms schools operate.
    I also don’t understand how the rules have been written so that LAUSD lawyers had to advise the district NOT to report to the CCTC when an investigation was begun.  If it was a false or misleading accusation, the rules could be written so the CCTC could say nothing.  It could even be written that it’s the CCTC’s job to follow up with the district and police on the outcome before reporting anything, so the district doesn’t have so much to do to distract them from the actual investigation/excuses.  The CCTC could be a partner in investigations, rather than a third party, removing some of the legal danger district lawyers see in including them.
    And I am surprised and disappointed to learn that teachers CONVICTED of molesting children are eligible for their teacher pension and benefits, that we have not outlawed this.  This is not exactly the kind of legislation that teacher’s unions would fight to have enacted.  THAT is a consequence for bad judgment that irrepairably harms a student.  It also has a side benefit of making the teacher’s pension system just a little more solvent, so the legislators should like it for a bunch of reasons.
    Finally, a note on Miramonte:  a year-round elementary school with 1500 students is a recipe for disaster.  The size of the school, the staggered schedules, it’s a formula for an anti-community, a situation in which no one is able to effectively supervise, collaborate, and create the multitude of conditions that must come together for safety and learning.  And it’s something we’ve got to remember when we talk about “closing ineffective schools” and shuffling kids around to other campuses who then have to devise ways of managing a student population much larger than the physical spaces of that school were meant to handle.

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  5. Sue Moore

    John – or capitol reader: Is there a public campaign that can be instigated to put some “bones in bodies” as needed?
    I would be more than willing to write letters to lawmakers. And I’d be happy to encourage others to do the same.
    Thanks pamzella -you clearly know what goes on in these circumstances. I have a child who has been bullied, and even as an educator it is incredibly difficult to deal with the denials and smokescreens that are created. I just cannot imagine what horror the students and parents in molestation cases endure – especially when second language, low-SES, and without economic means to find alternatives to the local school. I was always an advocate and active participant in programs for safe schools as a teacher, but the visceral reaction that drives me after my own child’s experience is quite different.

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  6. Frances O'Neill Zimmerman

    How nuanced and complicated these egregious matters seem when they are discussed here.
    Four-year statutes of limitations on retaining records of  allegations of impropriety against teachers? Guaranteed lifetime pensions and health benefits for abusive teachers if they retire before they are caught and fired? Elementary schools  with 1500 students on year-round schedules in poor immigrant-filled neighborhoods?
    The Los Angeles Times last week detailed the history of how the first two provisions were made part of the UTLA union contract with the District — quid pro quos for foregoing salary increases (which the District couldn’t afford in the early 1990′s) and as a way to avoid a(nother)  teachers’ strike. The giant and impersonal school with no hope for anyone associated with it was just standard worst-practice urban public school SNAFU.
    I am encouraged by the strong response of Superintendent John Deasy  who temporarily shut down Miramonte, replaced the entire staff, legally pursued that school’s two alleged offenders, searched LAUSD files for other overlooked past evidence of  child-abuse by Los Angeles school personnel and for his expressing publicly the despair and outrage felt by everyone who read about this crime, scandal, disgrace (pick one.) California Teachers Association ought to be first in line, followed by legislators from both political parties, to right these wrongs in the law.

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  7. Sue Moore

    Frances:  Do we know whether or not the Superintendent had access to the files in excess of four years old? I would be amazed if the files were accurately kept. I remember that in the mid-1990s, mine in SDUSD were totally inaccurate, so I have little faith – sadly. I agree about the nuances. Why can’t the fundamental issues be laid out and resolved – without bargaining chips. In the meantime  - -this is not just about LAUSD, all of us who are career educators/board members/volunteers know that. Has Governor Brown mandated that ALL school districts immediately review files – review personnel – reopen those buried boxes? If not, why not? How about an ounce of prevention?
    My son and my step-daughter (at different SDUSD schools) both had a high school teacher sent to jail for sex crimes  - and one was in plain sight. And La Jolla High is not Miramonte!

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  8. John Fensterwald - Educated Guess Post author

    Sue: The Los Angeles Times reported that records beyond four years old were hard stored in boxes that were sometimes moved, misplaced and difficult to locate. I would imagine that with changes in principals and transfer of teachers,  pre-digital records were a mess. With electronic records, that should no longer be the case.

    We’ll soon see the differences in the Republican and Democratic bills. My guess is that Democrats and unions will want a bright line distinguishing dismissals involving misconduct and those involving unsatisfactory performance. The Republicans may want to give the local boards final say in all cases. We’ll see. I assume that UTLA in the ’90s could not imagine that the 4-year limitation would ever contribute to the horror show in the district.

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  9. Sue Moore

    Thanks John. I guess that I just cannot comprehend “why” the four year limit was there in the first place.
    I get tired of the excuses about losing things, and so on. There is a system in place, it is important, it costs a lot of money. If the job isn’t done correctly – losing boxes – then maybe there needs to be a complete overhaul of the job. Maybe outsource all record keeping to competitive bid!
    As for digital – two local hospitals just muddled me up recently (be aware!), so in one case I was denied service, and the second my results sent to a different doctor for a different person. I had to personally research and fix each error. That was 2 for 2! It all boils down to human beings doing their jobs, and I am often failing to see that happening.

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  10. Frances O'Neill Zimmerman

    Oh, I forgot to mention another part of the LAUSD/UTLA deal struck back when: teachers no longer were required to help oversee playgrounds at recess or at lunch. To this day, that exemption exists in San Diego, and elementary school playgrounds are poorly supervised zoos where rough and uncivilized behavior is the norm. Physical and verbal bullying occur and no adult is the wiser. How we ever imagined this was an acceptable quid pro quo underscores, for me, how far we have moved from placing primacy on the well-being and education of children. After more than 40 years of this in California, I still believe we can redress the imbalance.

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  11. Gary Ravani

    Re Senator Huff.: Did he really propose eliminating the “two teachers” on the three person Commission on Professional Competence?
    There never have been two teachers on the panels. There is an administrative law judge (ALJ), one person (typically a teacher) selected by the charged teacher, and one person (typically a school administrator) chosen by district management.
    A teacher receiving a notice of dismissal has thirty days to file to have a hearing. The district then has thirty days to request the assignment of an ALJ to the state Office of Administrative Hearings.  That 60 day period can be extended by “mutual agreement” between the teacher and management. Did you get the word “mutual” in that? If the time frame extends for a year (unusual) management agreed to that.
    The teacher gets paid and the district pays for attorneys if the district loses the case. Who did you want to pay if the district loses the case? Why wouldn’t the teacher get paid if the case is lost? It is the teacher’s pay.
    What can take “more than a year” is if the case is taken to court. Just today it was noted that testimony given to the state legislature by a CA Supreme Court justice asserts the court process has slowed because of cuts to court funding. Want to speed that up? Support taxes to eliminate further cuts.
    If you don’t want either school districts or teachers to be able to bring dismissal cases to court for redress plan on amending the US Constitution.
    What part of “allegations” is unclear? Districts have the right to immediately put an employee on “administrative leave” (remove them from the classroom) when charges of unprofessional conduct are made. An appropriate  investigation must be carried out. (In LA, both management and the sheriff investigated.)
    The charges made in LA are heinous. They are criminal in nature. When the courts have completed their work we may know most of the facts.
    If you frequent meetings of  the CA Commission on Teacher Credentialing (CTC) you will often hear staff report that of all the licensing agencies in the state the CTC receives  the fewest charges of unprofessional conduct. Teachers, as a group, are very prim in their habits. Teachers, with the exception of a infinitely tiny minority, are also exceptionally protective of their precious charges.
    There were probably a few actual  communists roaming the halls of the State Department when Joseph McCarthy made his wild accusations. He was wrong and fundamentally un-American to try and broad-brush hundreds of State Department employees, as well as others, as being subversives. Likewise the House Un-American Activities Committee was wrong to pursue actors, writers, and teachers. That hysterical period is a black mark on our collective history.
    So once again teachers are in the gun-sights because of allegations against a few.  As we in the history field often say: The one thing we learn from history is we don’t learn from history.

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  12. capitolreader

    Gary – the problem is it takes years and a ton of money to go through this process — which no other profession benefits from.  The millions that go into dismissing the few bad teachers should be spent on kids, not lining the pockets of adults.

    By the way, when you say things like we’d need to amend the US constitution to carry out what reformers are proposing, it’s hard to take the rest of your comments seriously.

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  13. navigio

    Capitol, do you think its fair to point out that your example is somewhat anecdotal? The article you cite specifically says this case is the longest one out there, and mentions that most only take a few months. In addition, do you think its fair to mention that the district had actually already lodged its own internal complaints against this teacher while he was still probationary but then gave him tenure nonetheless??!  In other words, removing tenure protections would have had no impact here. The issue is really something else completely and I think the article makes it clear what that was.
    Forgive me for my naiveté, but it never ceases to amaze me how much politics gets into these education policy discussions. Does anyone here think its possible that we might try focusing on whats good for the kids instead of what we want our political world to look like? And maybe more importantly, admit that there probably is never one single answer that will fit every scenario? What may work in one context may not work at all in a different one. That doesn’t make the answer the wrong one, or even make it the right one all the time for that matter.

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  14. Gary Ravani

    Read more carefully.
    Perhaps you are unaware that the US Supreme Court long ago defined the “right to redress grievances” as including the right to sue. So this right, as well as due process, are protected variously under Amends I, IV and VII. If you deem you have been separated from your employment illegally you can go to court.
    It is a Constitutional issue.
    As I stated, it is that process that can take years. The dismissal process for teachers, under the panel John talked about is not that process. That process, with the three member panel, typically takes months.
    The “reforms” you speak of, like  all “reforms” proposed by those unfamiliar with education (being just about all of them), make the situation worse. If you remove the panel and reduce real due process you almost insure you are going to get a lawsuit. School boards, who already made a decision when the dismissal notice was issued, can not then unilaterally sit as an impartial panel in the review of the dismissal. Again, such ill-considered actions will insure lawsuits and insure the process is dragged out.

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