Leaders who don’t protect students from predators violate public trust
As a former counselor in a facility for teenagers who had been physically and sexually abused, I witnessed the indelible impact of this abuse on young men and women. As I read the stories about the sexual abuse scandal at Miramonte Elementary School in Los Angeles Unified, I remembered these young people and the destruction that twisted adults had wrought on their lives. Then I waited for the calls for reform from those with the power to make changes.
After all, the allegations are monstrous. The possibility that school officials may have known about the sexual abuse and done nothing is appalling. The fact that the Los Angeles Unified had to pay an alleged pedophile $40,000 to leave the school rather than spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to follow teacher dismissal laws is unbelievable. Worst of all is the knowledge that this situation could have been prevented by lawmakers in Sacramento.
Three years ago, the Los Angeles Times documented multiple cases of teachers who had abused students with little or no consequences. The articles revealed how the ten-step, state-mandated dismissal process for certificated staff including teachers (all other employees have the normal legal protections against arbitrary dismissal) protects abusive and incompetent adults from any accountability. Yet, instead of fixing these laws, most of the Sacramento power structure yawned and waited for the outrage to dissipate rather than confront their supporters in the statewide teachers unions. As a result, we have Miramonte.
Defenders of the current system like to argue that Miramonte is an isolated situation. But those who have been in school systems know that this is far from the truth. Recently, I talked with an attorney who had represented districts in dismissal cases. He shared story after story of high-cost cases to remove teachers who had either physically or sexually abused students – including male teachers who had raped impressionable female students and called their actions “relationships.” In these cases, the districts had been willing to spend millions to use the dismissal process with no guarantee of success.
I shared with him a story about a health-class teacher who was physically aggressive and sexually forward toward students. Despite student and parent complaints, nothing happened. The standard advice from our attorneys to school leaders was, “document the incidents and create an improvement plan.” For experienced school administrators who had already tried these steps, this advice was laughable. Finally, I received a report of a new problem. A female student complained that he had taught her class wearing loose shorts and no underwear so that his privates were clearly visible. Based on this complaint, our lawyers agreed to “counsel him out.”
Now, when a system has become so degraded that the threshold for “counseling out” of the profession is not job performance, but the exposure of one’s privates to a classroom of teenagers, there is clearly a need for change. This situation, Miramonte, and the earlier cases documented by the L.A. Times should raise troubling questions for those lawmakers protecting the current system. How many more teachers with similar histories have been “counseled out” and ended up in other schools? How many have had their records expunged and continued to teach? How many have been transferred or made their way to high-need schools in poor and immigrant communities where the parents may be less aware and more trusting?
Similar questions have been raised in other abuse scandals in powerful institutions such as the Catholic Church and Penn State. Like those cases, defenders of the current system talk about the importance of due process and assail anyone recommending reform for “attacking the profession.” In this instance, the accusation will be that critics are “bashing teachers.” In any context, these arguments lack credibility.
Not only is the existing system bad for students and communities, it is fundamentally bad for the teaching profession. First, the millions of dollars spent trying to remove a few bad apples and training administrators on the ten-step dismissal process could and should be spent on instructional improvement. Second, the predictable futility of the ten-step process undermines the credibility of the evaluation system overall. Most importantly, given the likelihood of similar cases coming to light, lawmakers should be making every effort to reform the system to prevent future collateral damage to the profession.
Senate Bill 1530 by Democratic Sen. Alex Padilla would do a great deal to fix this situation by modifying the existing dismissal process for teachers accused of serious misconduct including sex, violence, or drugs. (A broader bill by Republican Sen. Bob Huff that would have encompassed a wider array of misconduct and abuse accusations failed to get out of committee.) SB 1530 has the support of children’s advocates, school districts including LAUSD, and L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s office. Predictably, it is opposed by both statewide teachers unions. Sadly, it has the silence of many of their key allies, including our most powerful education leaders: Governor Jerry Brown, Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson, and Speaker of the Assembly John Perez.
Now that the bill has moved out of the Senate and into the Assembly, its opponents will work hard to defeat it. They will lobby their longtime allies and the chairs of important committees. They will work to derail the bill with the aid of longtime legislative staffers who have always prioritized their friends in the CTA over any other interest. And if all else fails, they will take their case to the governor.
For the average citizen, taxpayer, and voter, it must boggle the mind that Sacramento would even be debating this; that this situation wouldn’t have been fixed years ago; and that our most powerful elected leaders won’t commit to fixing it now. Now many of these same leaders and other legislators will be stumping around the state asking the citizens of California to trust them to spend their money, fix the budget crisis, and solve a host of other problems. Of course, the average citizen might ask in return, If we can’t trust you to protect our children from adults involved in sex, violence, and drugs in our schools, how can we trust you on anything at all?
Arun Ramanathan is executive director of The Education Trust–West, a statewide education advocacy organization. He has served as a district administrator, research director, teacher, paraprofessional, and VISTA volunteer in California, New England, and Appalachia. He has a doctorate in educational administration and policy from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. His wife is a teacher and reading specialist and they have a child in preschool and another in a Spanish immersion elementary school in Oakland Unified.