Abuse records don’t follow some school workers

November 30, 2012

California teachers who lose their jobs for misconduct against students lose their licenses to teach, but the state has no similar process for any of the other 289,000 school employees who may be fired or forced to resign due to child abuse. There’s no mechanism for sharing the information on “classified” employees; as a result, other districts and childcare centers may hire a new bus driver, classroom or special education aide or cafeteria worker without knowing why the person left their last job.

This disquieting revelation about abuse by school employees who aren’t teachers was disclosed yesterday within the 68-page report from the State Auditor highly critical of Los Angeles Unified School District over how it mishandled years of sex abuse cases involving teachers.

The audit was triggered by the sensational story that surfaced earlier this year over the district’s failure to take action against two male teachers at Miramonte Elementary School, despite suspicions

that they were sexually abusing students. In the case of 5th grade teacher Mark Brendt, who’s facing 23 counts of lewd conduct, suspicions of misconduct had been around for years.In the wake of his arrest, and other cases, the Joint Legislative Audit Committee asked the State Auditor to investigate how LAUSD handled allegations of employee abuse against students.

The report, Los Angeles Unified School District: It could do more to improve its handling of child abuse allegations, doesn’t cite cases in which classified workers who were fired for suspected sex abuse or left under a cloud were subsequently hired by an unaware district, although the lack of central record keeping creates that potential.

Encouraging the Legislature to create a system that tracks classified employees charged with misconduct involving students, as the Commission on Teacher Credentialing does for teachers, is one of four recommendations in the report.

“If such a mechanism existed, school districts throughout the State could be notified before hiring these classified employees,” wrote State Auditor Elaine Howle.

Classified employees don’t have the same due process rights as teachers facing charges of misconduct. The process of dismissal is quicker, with fewer steps, and is therefore less costly, leading some critics of the appeals process for teachers to call for a uniform system for all school employees.

As with teachers, in most cases classified employees charged with misconduct involving a student will be suspended with pay and have the right to a hearing. But the local school board has the final say over whether to dismiss classified staff, a process that takes at most four months. Teachers can appeal decisions to a quasi-judicial Commission of Professional Competence, often extending the process up to 18 months, during which they continue to be paid.  That’s costing LA Unified $1.4 million a month in salaries for those teachers, according to the LA Daily News. The district said yesterday it spent an additional $11 million last year to pay substitute teachers to fill in for the suspended teachers. LAUSD paid former Miramonte teacher Berndt $40,000 not to contest his dismissal.

The audit found that the district’s handling of Berndt’s case wasn’t an anomaly. LAUSD was at least one year late in submitting more than 144 cases to the state Commission on Teacher Credentialing, including 31 cases that languished for three years before being reported. The district couldn’t say why this happened.

Being late creates damage beyond the financial burden on the district and limbo for the accused teachers. The statute of limitations on these abuse cases is four years, so delays could prevent the Commission from revoking certification from a teacher who might be guilty of the accusations.

Under state law, hourly or “classified” workers at a school district have fewer due process rights. Efforts to dismiss them for misconduct take less time, and generally are less expensive than dismissals of teachers and administrators. The school board has final say for classified workers. Teachers can take an appeal to an outside authority, the Commission on Professional Competence. Source: California State Auditor (click to enlarge).

Superintendent John Deasy acknowledged the problems in a six-page letter to Howle responding to the audit. “We gladly and respectfully accept all of the recommendations presented in this audit,” wrote Deasy. He then described the policy and structural changes made by the district over the past year that led the district to submit about 600 cases in a period of three months to the Commission on Teacher Credentialing. Among those were the 144 late filings, about 100 duplicates of reports that had already been sent in and, according to the audit, “many not requiring reporting” that “caused a significant needless increase in workload for the commission.”

Warren Fletcher, president of United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA), said that action illustrates the district’s overreaction to handling abuse charges in the aftermath of Miramonte. “Every time the district overreacts it diverts resources that should have been used to investigate serious misconduct,” said Fletcher in a statement released Thursday. “From accuse no one to accuse everyone. Neither of them makes sense.”

Although it wasn’t recommended by the auditor, Deasy wants the Legislature to try again to pass a bill making it easier to suspend teachers accused of child abuse. After a bruising battle, the state Assembly defeated a similar bill last year. SB 1530 by Sen. Alex Padilla, a Democrat from the San Fernando Valley, would have made it easier to suspend a teacher facing “serious and egregious” charges without pay. It also would have replaced an appeals board with an administrative judge whose opinions would have been advisory to the school board. LAUSD said it is working with Sen. Padilla on that legislation.

UTLA opposed last year’s bill, but Fletcher wouldn’t say what position the union would take on a new version. However, he did indicate what they’re looking for from the district.  “Being a teacher is a sacred trust. Teachers above all want to make sure that anyone who has violated that trust is gone,” he said. “But we are not going to accomplish that by scatter shot approaches and smearing innocent people’s names.”

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