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California

L.A. Unified has persistent problems resolving allegations of teacher misconduct

Mark Berndt with attorney
The arrest of Miramonte teacher Mark Berndt (right) sparked an increase in the number of teachers removed from their classes during investigations. A new state audit tabulated the cost of replacing these instructors.
(Al Seib/Los Angeles Times)

Years after a series of high-profile abuse cases, L.A. Unified still has problems resolving allegations of wrongdoing by teachers and holding down costs related to them, according to a state audit released Thursday.

Last year, the district paid $12.6 million in ongoing salary to teachers who had been pulled from classrooms and at least another $3.3 million for the substitute teachers who filled in, according to the audit. While substantial, both figures were improvements over recent years.

District officials said they would use the audit to make improvements, but insisted that they already had made progress in striking a good balance between thorough investigations and prompt results.

In most situations, a teacher must be paid while an internal probe is under way, so the cost for paying inactive teachers relates directly to the length of investigations. In general, L.A. Unified was quick to remove a teacher after it determined that a plausible allegation was made, but in about half of the cases reviewed by auditors, it then missed internal deadlines for following up, often at multiple stages of the review process. These delays occurred despite the work of a special investigations team established after an earlier critical state audit.

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Teachers removed from the classroom are referred to as “reassigned” and typically must wait out the school day at home while they are under a cloud.

“Long investigation times contribute to the substantial expense … as well as the stigma formally reassigned teachers may experience,” the auditors wrote.

Auditors also suggested that the district did not place a sufficiently high priority on improving its internal system.

“LAUSD does not currently have effective processes to prevent unnecessary delays,” the report stated.

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In several long-open cases, the auditors identified district errors or inefficiency as a major contributing cause. And the audit noted that the length of time needed to resolve cases has nearly doubled, from 236 to 420 calendar days, over the last five years. The unresolved case of one teacher stretched back to 2008.

In all, the district removed 635 teachers from classrooms starting from the 2011-12 school year through June 2016. The biggest spike in the number of teachers removed was in the aftermath of the January 2012 arrest of Miramonte Elementary teacher Mark Berndt, who later was convicted of lewd conduct with about two dozen students.

The district continues to beef up staffing for its investigations team, which currently costs about $2.47 million per year. It has also begun sending some cases to outside investigators. What it’s doing less of is relying on principals to conduct initial investigations: The teachers union had questioned principals’ objectivity, and the district had concerns about the consistent and professional gathering of evidence.

“We want to do these things as quickly as possible but not at the cost of quality or student safety,” said general counsel David Holmquist. “When it comes to student safety and rights of these teachers, we want to get it right. It takes how long it takes.”

Even lesser allegations can result in a lengthy limbo for instructors.

The median span of time it took to resolve an allegation of a teacher using “inappropriate language” was 578 days, with one case dragging on more than four years, auditors found. The median time to resolve a sexual-misconduct case, a high priority for the internal investigators, was 13 months.

The district challenged some of the auditors’ numbers. The median time  for investigation might have skewed upward because the district recently concluded some particularly lengthy cases, Holmquist said. Some involved teachers the district did not want to put in front of students, even if it had to keep paying them for an extended period.

Overall, he insisted, new cases are being handled more quickly. 

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District critics saw affirmation in the audit.

“LAUSD cannot perform even the basic functions of supervising its teachers in a competent manner,” said attorney John Manly, who has represented victims of teacher abuse at Miramonte and elsewhere.

Teachers union President Alex Caputo-Pearl credited the district and union for working together to reduce the number of teachers in limbo by about two-thirds. He said the district and its teachers are still suffering the aftereffects of overreaction in the wake of Berndt’s arrest.

“We recognize and support the district’s responsibility to investigate misconduct, but this process was abused...creating an environment of fear that hasn’t helped kids and will take years for the district to recover from,” Caputo-Pearl said.

The publicity surrounding Berndt’s arrest led to an immediate surge in allegations against teachers. That year, the district removed 178 teachers, 67 for alleged sexual misconduct. The following year, those numbers were 195 and 39 respectively.  The numbers then dropped sharply before bumping up last year, when 37 teachers were investigated for sexual misconduct and 90 were pulled from classrooms.

The auditor took a detailed look at 18 cases and found costs ranging from $7,000 to nearly $315,000 to pay teachers removed from classrooms. Those expenses don’t include the costs of investigation, prosecution or, in some instances, compensation to victims.

To read the article in Spanish, click here

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Times staff writer Anna Phillips contributed to this story.

howard.blume@latimes.com

Twitter: @howardblume


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