LOCAL

L.A. Unified shifting 'teacher jails' to homes

EducationLos Angeles Unified School DistrictMark BerndtJohn Deasy
A change in 'teacher jail' policy will affect about 250 L.A. Unified instructors
Union argued that many teachers who have been suspended should be in classrooms because they pose no threat

As of Tuesday, Los Angeles teachers suspended amid misconduct investigations will be allowed to remain at home rather than report during the workday to district offices — known within the profession as "teacher jails."

The change, ordered by L.A. Unified Supt. John Deasy, will affect about 250 instructors who face allegations such as breaking district rules, mishandling money or abusing students.

"There are costs associated with maintaining employees in a workplace," district general counsel David Holmquist said. "There are supervision issues. There also are other opportunities to use the space."

United Teachers Los Angeles had pushed for ending the practice of informally confining teachers during school hours, but the district said its action was not in response to the union. Other government agencies, Holmquist pointed out, routinely have employees wait out investigations at home.

Alex Caputo-Pearl, the union's president-elect, challenged Holmquist's explanation for the change.

"The district's move was brought about by the pressure generated over the last few months from parents, school communities and educators," he said, adding that it would "ameliorate some of the horrible conditions that educators face in the actual teacher jail rooms."

The standard practice had been for suspended teachers to report to a non-campus office during the workday — typically doing very little, while under some form of supervision. Some have remained "housed," as the district terms it, for several years.

Although the teachers continue to be paid, many said they consider the mandatory reporting obligations humiliating. Housed teachers cannot do work outside of their regular duties, such as help the central office with filing. They also cannot contact substitutes to provide lesson plans for their students while they are away.

The number of housed instructors more than doubled — at times exceeding 400 — in the wake of the 2012 arrest of Miramonte Elementary teacher Mark Berndt. He pleaded no contest in November to 23 counts of lewd conduct and received a 25-year prison sentence.

Since Berndt's arrest, officials have been quick to remove any teacher who was under a cloud, saying student safety is paramount.

The union has argued that many housed teachers ought to be sent back to the classroom because they pose no threat and, in fact, the students need them.

Holmquist agreed that many of those suspended presented no danger. The reason they were not at work, he said, had to do with keeping teachers from compromising evidence or witnesses.

Not all instructors were celebrating the end of teacher jails.

"This new policy does nothing to correct the moral injustices of the teacher jail system," said Scott Mandel, a union officer for the San Fernando Valley. "Innocent teachers are still being removed based on speculation, with few basic legal rights. If anything, all this new policy does is make teacher jail invisible to the public."

The union now might have more trouble reaching and organizing them, teachers and union activists said.

They also asserted that the district has over-corrected for past situations, such as the misconduct of Berndt, by presuming instructors are guilty and by unfairly dismissing many.

Another long-standing complaint is that teachers sometimes do not know what they are accused of for lengthy periods.

L.A. Unified officials said that they are providing information to teachers much more quickly than before. The district also recently assembled professional investigators to resolve cases more rapidly.

Aside from sexual wrongdoing, misconduct can include being verbally abusive, excessively missing work or failing to follow the rules for giving standardized tests.

Science teacher Greg Schiller recently was ordered from Cortines High School of Visual & Performing Arts because a staff member accused him of allowing students to make dangerous science projects. After a public outcry, officials returned him to the downtown high school.

howard.blume@latimes.com

Twitter: @howardblume

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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EducationLos Angeles Unified School DistrictMark BerndtJohn Deasy
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