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Popular choir director who performed for Obama put in 'teacher jail'

Parents, students and community members rallied Friday in front of Crenshaw High School against the removal of the school’s longtime choir director, who was reassigned while under investigation by the Los Angeles Unified School District.

Iris Stevenson, who leads Crenshaw’s award-winning choir, was removed from the school in December and is reporting to work at district offices — often called “teacher jails” — that house instructors who are facing allegations of misconduct.

District officials would not comment on the specific allegations, citing privacy laws. The investigation could take “several months to complete because of the complexity of issues involved,” the district said in a statement.

Under Stevenson’s direction for nearly three decades, the school choir has thrived, competing — and winning — competitions around the world. Stevenson was reassigned soon after returning from a class trip to France and to Washington, D.C., where the choir performed at the White House for President Obama.

A couple dozen community members defended Stevenson as an icon at the school, a strict but loving teacher who demanded the best of her students and showed them a world outside of Los Angeles, they said.

“We want Miss Stevenson, we want her now!” they chanted. A choir made up of former students sang renditions of songs arranged by Stevenson as students made their way into school.

“She is needed here in this community,” said Cecil Thompson, a 2007 graduate of the school and former member of the choir.  “She taught us that we can be somebody.”

Alex Caputo-Pearl, a former teacher at Crenshaw High School, said Stevenson has led countless students through the years.

“She’s an institution,” said Caputo-Pearl, who is Stevenson’s union representative.  “It’s an absolute travesty that a teacher like her is caught up in teacher jail and is taken away from her students.”

United Teachers Los Angeles, the local teachers union, has vigorously opposed the way in which the district handles teachers who face allegations.

The union contends that teachers are kept in these offices for far longer than necessary and that, in some cases, they are unjustly fired even after an allegation is proved untrue. The union has called on the district to end the practice of keeping teachers in these offices; inform instructors of allegations against them within 10 days of removal from the classroom; and conduct an independent review of all dismissals by the Los Angeles Board of Education since 2012.

The school district said that Stevenson has been informed of the allegations. The union contends that she has not.

Stevenson could not be reached for comment.

Because of persistently low test scores and graduation rates, Los Angeles schools Supt. John Deasy last year rearranged the storied Leimert Park campus into three magnet schools — a move that required teachers to reapply for their jobs. Few teachers were rehired.

UTLA President Warren Fletcher said the district has a cavalier attitude toward the removal of teachers and the subsequent destabilization of inner-city schools.

“This school has already taken a huge hit, a huge destabilization,” Fletcher said.  “To remove someone who is a pillar of this community … it’s a level of disregard that is frightening and would not be tolerated in suburban schools.”

Caputo-Pearl, who was not rehired at Crenshaw during the reorganization of the school, said the process is a detriment to students.

“The superintendent has taken a method that was supposed to deal with the very few teachers that may be causing really significant problems and turned that method into a broad way of creating a climate of fear among teachers and destabilizing schools.”

Keeja Stewart, 16, a junior at the school, said students were stunned and angered by Stevenson’s removal. A substitute teacher has been filling in. “It’s terrible,” she said.

“She was helping me find my voice,” she said. “She’s more than just a teacher — she’s a second mother to me.”

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stephen.ceasar@latimes.com | Twitter: @stephenceasar

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