The Los Angeles school district's effort to identify teachers suspected of misconduct has been complicated by a little-known clause in the teachers' contracts that limits how long allegations can remain in a teacher's file.
Under the contract, alleged misconduct that does not result in discipline is removed from personnel files after four years. The provision dates to the early 1990s when the L.A. Unified School District agreed to it in exchange for teachers taking a 10% pay cut.
The arrangement is unusual, but not unheard of. Many other school districts, including New York City, Long Beach, Fresno, Sacramento City and San Diego, for example, can keep teachers' discipline records indefinitely. Public schools in Chicago and Clark County, Nev., have a process to remove them automatically after a few years.
The policy has limited L.A. Unified's ability to deal with misconduct allegations against teachers and weed out potential problem instructors. The most explosive allegations involved former Miramonte Elementary School teacher Mark Berndt, who has pleaded not guilty to 23 counts of lewd conduct for allegedly photographing students blindfolded, gagged and being spoon-fed his semen. Several earlier investigations and complaints about his conduct -- none of which ever resulted in criminal charges or discipline -- were not in his record.
The contract states that after four years, "pre-disciplinary" documents filed about teachers are either destroyed or placed in an "expired file" at the campus. These can include an unproven allegation of serious misconduct, a warning or reprimand, a principal's private notes about a potential problem or a memo that resulted from a meeting with a teacher over an issue.
"It is a provision that can compromise our ability to respond to misbehavior that might occur over a long period of time," said Los Angeles schools Supt. John Deasy, adding that he will seek to change that part of the contract.
Although teachers cannot be subject to discipline based on an incident in the expired file, administrators can use it to assess whether a teacher should get harsher punishment for a later transgression.
Much documentation, however, has not survived in any file, officials said.
The contract does not specify what should happen to "expired" files over time, but they have remained on campus even when a teacher moves to another school.
Last week, Deasy announced that he had ordered the school district staff to go back four years to look for any potential teacher misconduct that should be reported to the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing. The commission has authority to suspend or revoke teaching credentials.
Deasy also wants principals to review all employee files -- even the expired ones -- going back decades, if necessary, to flag potential issues.
Administrators are to alert law enforcement authorities of any past case that wasn't reported. And if the response to a past allegation now appears questionable, principals are supposed to note that as well.
Deasy gave administrators 60 days to complete the task.
"You are reminded that no document relating to any allegation of employee misconduct, including assistance and guidance provided to any employee, is to be removed from any school," Deasy wrote.
The administrators union immediately raised concerns.
"The district has never established clear procedures or guidelines for what goes into site files or working folders," said Judith Perez, president of Associated Administrators of Los Angeles. "Furthermore, district procedures regarding reporting of suspected child abuse cases have changed over the years."
Locating and sorting through the expired files pose another challenge.
"If there are separate, expired files at a school, as leadership changes, the knowledge of those files is going to disappear," said Randy Delling, principal of North Hollywood High. "Those files could even be off-site somewhere."
Retired Principal Joseph Caldera called Deasy's directive "a hell of a burden," noting that construction at his former campus, Gage Middle School, led to files being moved to various places.
At Gage, he oversaw 175 teachers as well as other employees.
"I didn't look through 175 files," Caldera said. "I looked through files as I needed to. You rely on the principal before you to say who you should be concerned about."
He remembers immediate confusion when L.A. Unified first agreed to the contract provision.
Principals wanted to know "what things could be forgiven if you didn't do it again." He doesn't recall receiving clear, consistent guidance.
In 1993, the Board of Education was locked in tense contract negotiations with United Teachers Los Angeles during a budget crisis.
The district agreed to some key concessions in exchange for teachers accepting a pay cut. Among them: freedom from yard-duty supervision and winning the right to choose classes based on seniority. Teachers union President Warren Fletcher declined to comment and would not authorize anyone else from the union leadership to speak.
But retired union officials said the four-year rule was a response to the targeting of union activists or other teachers by administrators who raised incidents that had occurred long ago.
"We were looking at things to protect teachers. We went through a really long time when principals did whatever they wanted to teachers," said retired union Vice President Becki Robinson. "We were not talking about child abuse, but other stuff."
Times staff writer Stephen Ceasar contributed to this report.