May 12, 2013 teacher misconduct; 100 fired, 200 resign, 300 ‘housed’
The personnel files stretched the length of the 15-foot conference table in Superintendent John Deasy’s office, a chronicle of the corporal punishment, verbal and physical abuse and sexual misconduct reported in the classrooms of the Los Angeles Unified School District.
Cuts and bruises. Curses and racial slurs. Caresses and pornography.
In the past, the misdeeds detailed in the teachers’ files would likely have earned the offender a disciplinary memo, maybe a week’s suspension, perhaps a transfer to another school.
Today, they’re grounds for firing.
Under the zero-tolerance policy that Deasy enacted after the Miramonte Elementary sex-abuse scandal erupted in February 2012, the school board has voted to dismiss more than 100 teachers for misconduct, and accepted the resignations of at least 200 others who were about to be terminated. Nearly 300 additional teachers accused of inappropriate behavior remain “housed” in administrative offices while officials investigate the complaints.
“It feels like we’re seeing more cases,” said school board member Tamar Galatzan, who is working to streamline LAUSD’s cumbersome process for investigating alleged misconduct.
“We’ve heard from principals that, 10 years ago, many felt that if they jumped through all the hoops to recommend dismissal, the board wouldn’t back them and they would get a teacher back who not only had been reported for wrongdoing but was now hostile.
“Now, principals know that their recommendation will be supported. Once the allegations are investigated and confirmed, the board will move to dismiss teachers who shouldn’t be teaching. “
Under California law, a school board’s vote to dismiss a teacher takes effect 30 days later unless the educator appeals to the state Office of Administrative Hearings. LAUSD officials say they expect an appeal from every teacher dismissed since the district’s crackdown on misconduct.
It’s the files of those teachers that were spread out in Deasy’s office after he agreed to provide a first-ever public accounting of the potentially career-ending behavior alleged of teachers in LAUSD classrooms.
“It is important for people to know that this administration will remove teachers who act like this. They should have supreme confidence that we won’t ignore a complaint or over-react or under-react,” he said. “Student safety comes first. “
The files are crammed with paperwork from the internal investigations that can take a year or more to wrap up. There are statements from students, parents and witnesses; disciplinary memos; supporting documents like attendance sheets and gradebooks; and the paperwork formalizing the reason for their dismissal. Some include photos of injured students, copies of X-rated images found on district computers or stick-figure drawings by kids too young to verbalize what happened.
Most of the files also contain rebuttals of the allegations or explanations from teachers defending their actions.
“We get a pretty thorough written briefing,” said Galatzan, a career prosecutor who represents the West San Fernando Valley, “If a board member wants additional paperwork, then we’re provided with that. Several of the teachers also have voluminous e-mail correspondence with the board, so we become more familiar with some cases than others. “
What Deasy agreed to provide were the basics of the complaints. Because the files contain the names of teachers, students, classmates and parents, he read aloud from the complaints but
omitted identifying details. He did provide the genders of the employees and students, the type of school and its general location in the district and, where available, the year the teacher was born.
On the advice of the district’s lawyers, he did not discuss the dozen-or-so cases in which LAUSD is involved in active lawsuits or the teachers are facing criminal charges.
Nor did he disclose any specifics about the 44 teachers who were cleared of the allegations against them and returned to the classroom.
Still, it took hours to pore through the files of the 58 men and 26 women, Deasy frequently shaking his head or rubbing his eyes as he recited the litany of alleged misconduct that led to the employees’ dismissals.
“God, how do I even explain this?” Deasy asked, before recounting that a Westside elementary teacher in his early 60s “trained” his students to give him a full-body massage for 20 minutes every day while he “rested.” Youngsters, including some special-education students, later told officials that he shouted profanities, spanked them and hit them with rolled-up papers when they misbehaved.
The initial incident was reported by a classroom aide assigned to help the special-ed students.
That’s also how the district learned about a teacher at a San Fernando Valley elementary school who disciplined youngsters by locking them in a bathroom or barricading them in a corner using tables and chairs. “Maybe this will teach you a lesson,” the teacher reportedly told the kids as they cried to be released.
And that an Eastside elementary teacher used clothespins to pinch the ears of youngsters who weren’t paying attention to the lesson. The same teacher also discouraged thumb-sucking by putting nasty-tasting disinfectant on kids’ fingers and forced students to scrub their desks using cleanser and their bare hands.
A rash of sex-related complaints were made in the weeks after the Miramonte scandal broke, including allegations of tickling and fondling, and inappropriate and vulgar comments made in class. One high school student said a female teacher inexplicably took her along when she went shopping for sex toys in Hollywood. A few months later, girls at another high school complained that their male teacher had downloaded photos of them onto his laptop, and given each a salacious name.
Nearly a dozen male teachers were fired for pornography found on their district-issued laptops.
They include an instructor at an Eastside middle school who inadvertently projected an X-rated video rather than the family-hour fare he’d planned to show his class as a “reward” after a difficult week. “You didn’t see this,” he told the kids, shutting down the film once he realized his mistake. Several students reported the incident, and officials found 636 pornographic images and two adult videos on his computer.
And there were dozens of reports of corporal punishment, which LAUSD abolished in 1984 and which is also banned by state law. Some complaints came from campus nurses who treated injured students and others from parents who noticed cuts and bruises when their kids got home from school.
“I want my days spent supporting the tens of thousands of amazing teachers,” Deasy said. “Instead, they’re taken up by a very, very few with gross misconduct. “
Teacher misconduct became a hot-button issue after teacher Mark Berndt’s arrest on charges that he’d blindfolded and spoon-fed his semen to 23 students at Miramonte Elementary. Pressure mounted with news reports that there had been prior complaints against Berndt; that he’d received $40,000 to resign; and that the district had failed to tell parents about the accusations or to report his alleged misconduct to the state Commission on Teacher Credentialing.
After the Daily News reported in February 2012 that Telfair Elementary teacher Paul Chapel had been arrested four months earlier for molesting students, the district announced that parents would be notified within 72 hours about alleged teacher misconduct.
Deasy also ordered that all accusations of wrongdoing for the previous four years be sent to the credentialing panel – an exercise that overwhelmed the state agency with more than 500 files.
And he imposed the zero-tolerance policy, which he defended against criticism that it is too harsh and fails to distinguish between innocent and predatory behavior.
“Miramonte occurred in the middle of my first year as superintendent, and I learned a great deal about how to change the system of reporting and investigation,” he said. “When we know something, we do something. “
But United Teachers Los Angeles leaders have characterized Deasy’s actions as a “witch hunt,” saying he’s using misconduct allegations to get rid of troublesome teachers and those on the upper rungs of the experience and pay scale.
Richard Schwab, a partner in Trygstad, Schwab & Trystad, the law firm that represents UTLA in labor issues, said he’s seen a significant shift in the types of allegations being used to dismiss teachers.
“Every case must be judged on its own merits,” Schwab said. “But in a number of cases, the nature of the charges haven’t been appropriately investigated or have been too vigorously pursued and the evidence never supported such allegations. “
Under current law, teachers who are fired by the school board have 30 days to appeal their dismissal to the state’s Office of Administrative Hearings. It assigns each case to a panel composed of an administrative law judge and two educators – one chosen by the teacher, the other by the district – which reviews evidence and hears witness testimony before deciding whether or not the teacher should be fired. That process may take years, however, and cost the district hundreds of thousands of dollars in staff time and legal fees.
And either the district or the teacher can appeal the administrative ruling to Superior Court, dragging out the case even longer. Over the last decade, LAUSD officials say, they’ve won about half of the cases that have gone to an administrative hearing and 60 percent of those appealed to Superior Court.
There have been efforts in recent years to streamline the process, but none has been successful. Assemblywoman Joan Buchanan, D-San Ramon, has introduced a new measure that some believe has a chance of passing.
Assembly Bill 375 would set a deadline of seven months for the administrative appeal, start to finish. It has the support of UTLA and the California Teachers Association, which last year lobbied strongly against a bill that would have given a school board the final say in firing a teacher. Under heavy lobbying by the unions, that measure died in committee.
Deasy, the school board, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and some education advocates support the goals of AB 375, but say it doesn’t go far enough in letting districts get rid of bad teachers. Some officials also worry that lawmakers will consider all of the problems solved if they pass AB 375, halting efforts for additional reforms.
The current dismissal process includes a mandatory settlement conference, with a mediator trying to negotiate a compromise between the district and teacher before the case goes to a hearing. It was at this point that Berndt, the accused Miramonte teacher, received a $40,000 payout to drop the appeal of his dismissal.
Deasy said he has put an end to that type of incentive.
“We’re not doing that anymore,” he said. “Not on my watch. “
Schwab, the UTLA attorney, said many veteran teachers opt to resign rather than pursue an administrative hearing because they fear losing their lifetime health benefits if the ruling goes against them.
“Although they may be innocent or not guilty of the offense they’re accused of, they are deciding it’s in their best interest to resign,” he said. “This is a tool being used to attack some very, very good teachers. “
If the employee prevails, however, the district must reinstate the employee and pay back wages.
Even if the district is ordered to reinstate a teacher, Deasy said he has no intention of letting employees accused of misconduct back in the classroom.
“We’re ordered to keep them hired, but there are other jobs,” he said. “I can’t think of a case where that person should be back in front of students. “
With nearly 300 teachers still being investigated for misconduct, and new allegations trickling in, the abuse crisis in Los Angeles Unified is unlikely to end soon. While there are efforts to make the process more manageable, there’s no indication that district officials or the school board plan to change their tough stance on student safety.
“The fact that the school board is dismissing teachers who are being physically abusive to students is the way this process is supposed to work,” Galatzan said. “I’m certainly not going to apologize for that. “