Legal Dilemma Let Killer Stay as Teacher for Months : Education: Bills address situation where rights of those who were mentally ill compete with protecting students.


Even after learning they had hired as a teacher an admitted killer who had been committed to a state mental hospital 20 years ago, Los Angeles Unified School District officials left the man in the classroom for 10 months.

In fact, they only reassigned him to a clerical job--and began the process that led to his dismissal Monday--after parents complained in August that he was unable to keep order in his South-Central elementary school class.

Without parent complaints, district officials say their hands were tied. They were caught between competing demands--a legal requirement to respect the rights of an employee who once was judged mentally ill, versus a moral responsibility to protect their students from someone they feared could be dangerous.


But the embarrassment and concerns the incident caused--particularly after it was inadvertently discovered by a judge, brought to Gov. Pete Wilson’s attention and reported by a newspaper columnist--have led Los Angeles Unified officials to lobby for legislation aimed at preventing similar binds in the future.

Pending before the state Legislature are two bills: one to speed background checks on teacher prospects, so that candidates’ criminal records can be uncovered before hiring, and another to add insanity pleas to grounds for denying or revoking a license to teach.

The first is likely to draw little opposition, but the second is more problematic. Advocates for the disabled say it may violate federal laws protecting the employment rights of the mentally ill.

“We’re allowed to be concerned about this situation, but that doesn’t justify just any behavior,” said David Raizman, executive director of the Western Law Center for Disability Rights at Loyola Law School. “It really has to be a case-by-case analysis of . . . whether (the mentally disabled person) can perform the essential functions of the job.”

The legislation’s author, Assemblyman Brooks Firestone (R-Ventura) counters criticism by saying the rights of children and parents--who rely on schools to provide safe classrooms and competent teachers--are more important.

“I have seven grandchildren and I think there’s a need for some common sense in these laws,” said Firestone, a first-term assemblyman. “You have here two certificates--one being certified criminally insane and the other a teaching credential--and the two do not go together.”


There are laws that prevent people who have been convicted of certain crimes--including murder, kidnaping, rape and child abuse--from holding credentials to teach in public schools.

However, the Los Angeles Unified teacher whose case sparked the new legislation was not convicted of murder, but found “not guilty by reason of insanity.”

It is an extreme example of what supporters of the bills consider a gaping hole in current laws. But the issues it raises are significant.

Only a tiny percentage of the 2,000 license revocation hearings conducted annually by the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing deal with psychological problems. Yet, according to commission coordinator Nanette Rufo, “even if it’s only one teacher with 35 students a year . . . for those whose children might be impacted, that’s very threatening.”

The Los Angeles Unified teacher in question, who will not be named to protect his privacy, was a teacher at Pomona High School in 1975 when he was charged with murder in the shooting death of his therapist.

During the trial, the therapist’s son testified that the teacher had been undergoing hypnosis to help him cope with “voices” in his mind and a recurring memory of a boyhood spaceship ride.


The man was tried for murder, found not guilty by reason of insanity, and committed to Patton State Hospital for the criminally insane.

After being transferred back and forth between the hospital and outpatient treatment, he was considered sane enough to be discharged by the court in April, 1982, according to court records.

Within three years of his release, the former teacher had begun substituting in several smaller districts: Bassett, Walnut, Compton. By the time he applied to Los Angeles Unified for a permanent position in 1993, he had eight years of credible references.

He also held a valid teaching credential--which had been renewed by the state’s credentials commission in 1986 despite his criminal history. His resume made no mention of his stint in the mental hospital, but explained the interruption in his teaching career this way: “1975-1985, Kung Fu student/teacher.”

The school district did not learn of his criminal history until after he was hired.

Like all teacher applicants, he was fingerprinted and a background check was begun. But, as is also normal, it took two months for the results to come back and by that time, the teacher was assigned to a fifth-grade class.

District personnel administrators reviewed court records from his case but found themselves with few options. School attorneys advised that past mental impairment is not grounds for termination and is protected under the federal Americans With Disabilities Act.


Personnel officials believed that the case was not extraordinary enough to consult top district administrators, although they did notify the principal of his school.

In fact, he would probably still be teaching today had it not been for an unusual chain of events that threw his case into the glare of public scrutiny.

It began when the teacher was called to jury duty in Los Angeles Superior Court. In clear printing, he wrote on his juror affidavit that he could not serve because: “I received a not guilty by reason of insanity charge. I did ten years at Patton for the charge of manslaughter.”

When Judge Gregory O’Brien learned from a clerk that the potential juror was a teacher, the judge was, in his own words, “appalled.” He called Los Angeles Unified to confirm the man’s employment, then wrote a letter to Wilson--naming neither the teacher nor the school--questioning the wisdom of allowing an admitted killer to teach children.

A columnist for the Glendale News-Press also got tipped off, and in an Aug. 18, 1994, column, Allen Brandstater bemoaned the district’s impotence in his column. “Who is the system protecting? Who is at risk?” he wrote.

It was a call from Brandstater that first brought the situation to the attention of Los Angeles Unified Supt. Sid Thompson, according to his spokesman, Bill Rivera.


Thompson wanted the man pulled from his classroom, even though the state teacher credentials commission advised him he had no legal grounds to do so, Rivera said. Complaints from parents during the first days of the semester provided a legal opportunity and the teacher was transferred to a clerical job--”no contact with kids,” Rivera said.

On Monday, the school board voted without comment to terminate the man’s contract when the school year ends in June--at the end of his probation period.

Firestone’s bill would take such decisions out of the hands of school districts and allow the state to deny or revoke the credential of a teacher who has been judged insane in a criminal case.

The second bill, introduced by Assemblyman Willard H. Murray Jr. (D-Paramount), would allow districts to conduct preliminary background checks through local law enforcement computers, which provide information within 72 hours. They would follow that with the more extensive review now performed by the state Department of Justice and the FBI.

Combined, the two bills create a powerful screening tool welcomed by many school administrators, but feared by the teachers union and mental health advocates.

Once teachers are hired, “it’s very hard to remove them because you can’t get a panel of psychiatrists to agree that someone is unfit to be in a classroom,” said Sam Swofford, head of Lodi Unified schools and former member of the state credentials commission.


Swofford, a former police officer, said teachers should face even more stringent psychological screening than other employees because of their close contact with children.

The bills’ sponsors can count on support from the top, too. When Wilson signed a bill in August to permanently revoke teaching credentials for sex or drug convictions, he cited the Los Angeles Unified case as a loophole that he intended to close through administrative or legislative remedies.

“How can we tolerate this?” Wilson said at the time. “The people of California should not be required to entrust their children’s futures--indeed their very lives--to a killer.”

Strong opposition to the Firestone bill is likely from teachers unions because it would weaken the due process guarantees in credential laws. Rick Schwab, an attorney for United Teachers-Los Angeles, decried the insanity plea legislation as an emotional reaction to a legitimate concern.

“I’m not opposed to what it’s intending to do--safeguard schools, protect students, preserve the system--but it rushes to judgment,” Schwab said.

The more significant challenge to the Firestone bill may come from advocates for the mentally impaired and from the mentally ill themselves, who are newly empowered by their 1990 inclusion in the federal Americans With Disability Act.


“You have a community that was unaware of its rights before, even though there are federal and state laws that have been on the books for decades,” said Raizman of Loyola.

The first known lawsuit involving the federal act’s mental disorder protections is scheduled for trial in Oklahoma in June. It, too, involves a school employee--speech pathologist Vicki Perryman, who was fired by the Pauls Valley Public School District after it learned that she did not have ovarian cancer, as she claimed, but a mental disorder.

School district officials said Perryman was fired to protect students, but she sued under the disability act, saying her condition could be treated with lithium.

The district’s attorney, Bill Wilkinson, said he will seek to prove in the trial that schools are different from other workplaces because children are more vulnerable. On a broader scale, he acknowledges that including mental illness as a protected status presents a perplexing problem for any employer.

“A lot of people are very closely watching this case,” Wilkinson said. “If mental illness is to be treated just like someone in a wheelchair, what kind of accommodations must be made? How do you protect other workers . . . or students? Those are just tumultuous issues.”

While Perryman is waiting for her case to go to trial, Wilkinson said she has moved to New Mexico, where she is working as a speech pathologist in another school.


Times staff writer Jean Merl contributed to this story.