Ballot measure filed to speed up dismissals of teachers charged with sexual assault, abuse

December 12, 2013

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Advocacy organization EdVoice is seeking a ballot initiative to speed dismissal of teachers suspected of abuse. Credit: iStockphoto.com

After bills to streamline the dismissal process for abusive teachers failed two years in a row, a Sacramento-based nonprofit wants to put the issue to voters.

The advocacy organization EdVoice has submitted a proposed ballot measure with the arresting title “Stop Child Molesters, Sexual Abusers and Drug Dealers From Working In California Schools Act” to the attorney general for review. EdVoice intends to gather signatures to qualify the measure for the November ballot.

“It shouldn’t take a legion of lawyers, endless paperwork, millions of taxpayer dollars …  to address the challenge of dismissing the perpetrators of egregious misconduct to school children and other school staff,” EdVoice Chief Executive Officer Bill Lucia wrote in an email. “We helped in the filing of the proposed measure on behalf of individuals and groups frustrated that the Legislature cannot seem to solve a problem that unfortunately exists in school districts throughout geographic regions of the state.”

Two years ago, a bill sponsored by Sen. Alex Padilla, D-San Fernando Valley, was bottled up in the Assembly amid fierce opposition from teachers unions; the California Teachers Association said that SB 1530 went too far in tearing up teachers’ legal protections. Last year, a bill sponsored by Assemblywoman Joan Buchanan, D-Alamo, passed the Legislature, only to be vetoed by Gov. Jerry Brown. Although the dismissal-tightening provisions in Buchanan’s AB 375 would have applied to far more cases, organizations representing school administrators and school boards argued it didn’t go far enough to simplify and clarify the dismissal process. Lucia also strenuously opposed it.

EdVoice’s ballot proposal more closely resembles Padilla’s bill in key respects. It would apply only to “egregious” cases of misconduct – sexual crimes against children, child abuse and drug crimes, with some exceptions ­– and would not change the law governing the bulk of dismissal cases: efforts to fire administrators and teachers for poor performance. It would eliminate dismissal hearings by a three-person Commission on Professional Competency and replace it with a hearing before an administrative law judge alone. The commission consists of an administrative law judge and two experienced educators, one chosen by the school district and one by the accused teacher or administrator.

Like both Padilla’s and Buchanan’s bills, the proposed ballot measure would remove the four-year limit on keeping charges against teachers and administrators in their personnel files and allow charges against them during the summer.

But it also would go further than Padilla’s and Buchanan’s bills in speeding up trials and building a case against accused teachers by:

Districts now have the authority – and in some instances are required – to place teachers on leave after allegations of egregious and other serious misconduct. And much of the expense that districts face in salary and other costs is during the investigation by the district and the police before dismissal charges are filed.

But districts also have complained that the hearing process before the Commission on Professional Competence is too drawn out and expensive. That has led some districts to cut deals with teachers to get them to resign, including $40,000 that Los Angeles Unified paid elementary teacher Mark Berndt not to contest his dismissal. (Berndt pleaded guilty last month to molesting two dozen of his students. The district has paid out $29.5 million to settle suits filed by families so far.)

This week, Los Angeles Unified Superintendent John Deasy reiterated his call for changes in the dismissal law after a Nevada teacher was charged with kidnapping a 16-year-old girl who had moved into his home without her parents’ consent. The teacher, Melvyn Sprowson, 45, had taught in a Los Angeles Unified elementary school for eight years before resigning in 2011 after the district moved to dismiss him following accusations that he fondled two female students and showed a pornographic video in the classroom, among other allegations, according to the Los Angeles Times. Deasy told the Times that the district presented evidence to the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing to revoke Sprowson’s teaching credential, but that the Commission failed to do so. Sprowson apparently lied on his application for a teaching position in Nevada, and L.A. Unified didn’t provide information that would have tipped off the Nevada district as to why Sprowson had resigned.

In a fiscal analysis that it prepared for the attorney general, the Legislative Analyst’s Office concluded that the ballot measure, if it passed, would have a minor impact overall. There would be a negligible impact on the state, and school districts could see small potential savings through lower legal expenses and the recovery of wage and pension costs paid to dismissed teachers.

Since the EdVoice initiative has not yet been approved for circulation, the California Teachers Association declined to comment at this point. However, a spokeswoman told the Sacramento Bee, “Our members are the last ones who want child molesters in the schools.”

The CTA fought hard to kill the Padilla bill in the Assembly. However, spending money to defeat an initiative claiming it would help keep molesters out of the classroom will pose a big dilemma for the union.

John Fensterwald covers state education policy. Contact him and follow him on Twitter @jfenster. Sign up here for a no-cost online subscription to EdSource Today for reports from the largest education reporting team in California.

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