L.A. Unified to report all teacher misconduct cases to state
Los Angeles schools Supt. John Deasy said the district will report all teachers accused of misconduct to the state credentialing commission in an effort to keep those who pose a risk to students out of the classroom.
The sweeping action covers hundreds of teachers in the nation’s second-largest school district who have been investigated by school officials or police for alleged misconduct ranging from sexual abuse to excessive absenteeism.
Deasy said Wednesday that he has ordered staff to scour personnel files going back four years and to submit all discipline cases to the state. He hopes to uncover any cases that were not previously reported.
Deasy announced the major step a day after The Times reported that a substitute teacher was able to get a job in the Inglewood school system after he resigned from L.A. Unified in 2007 in the wake of three sexual-abuse investigations. The Los Angeles district has no evidence that it informed the credentialing commission about those investigations. The teacher, George Hernandez, was later accused of sexually assaulting an Inglewood student.
“I’m horrified,” said Deasy of recent revelations about the handling of past abuse allegations. “And the rest of my comments can’t be printed in the language that the L.A. Times uses. I don’t think I’m overreacting.”
The effort could trigger new investigations of some instructors by the credentialing commission. Filing the records with the commission is important because school districts rely on the agency to flag problem teachers who apply for jobs in new districts.
Besides the Hernandez case in 2007, the district acknowledged that it did not immediately file misconduct records with the state involving Mark Berndt, a former Miramonte Elementary teacher charged with 23 counts of lewd conduct against students. He pleaded not guilty on Tuesday.
L.A. Unified should have filed a report on Berndt within 30 days after the Board of Education voted to fire him in February 2011. Instead, the district waited until after Berndt’s arrest last month to do so. Berndt did not attempt to work elsewhere.
Deasy said that he believes the district has not intentionally held back any reports but that he wants to make sure no case has “slipped through the cracks.”
School districts in California are required to report teachers to the State Commission on Teacher Credentialing when they leave or change jobs as a result of allegations against them. Districts also have the option of reporting any serious concerns about a teacher to the commission.
The superintendent said the Berndt case underscores another effort the district will make — changing the laws governing teacher dismissals.
L.A. Unified fired Berndt while he was under investigation for allegedly taking pictures of gagged or blindfolded students who, in some cases, were being spoon-fed what authorities believe was Berndt’s semen.
The veteran teacher appealed his dismissal, transferring a decision on his fate from the school board to an outside three-person panel. L.A. Unified agreed to pay Berndt $40,000 in exchange for his resignation because district officials said they did not have access to police evidence of his alleged crimes at the time.
Deasy said state law should be changed to give local school boards full authority for teacher dismissals, which could still be challenged in the court system.
“It is far too cumbersome and convoluted to dismiss a teacher,” Deasy said. “And the current set of laws help conspire to encourage resignation as opposed to dismissal.”
Deasy said he also intended to support an attempt to strip teacher retirement pensions from those convicted of sex-related felonies on campus. In addition, the district is looking into whether it can deprive these retirees of lifetime health benefits paid for by L.A. Unified. Deasy said the district would explore taking this action without union negotiations. (Berndt is receiving both his district health benefits and his state pension.)
Local teachers union president Warren Fletcher declined to comment Wednesday on any element of Deasy’s plan.
In the past, union officials have opposed weakening job protections for teachers, saying that a few egregious cases should not be used to remake a system that, in their view, works well much of the time.
Deasy is taking other steps as well. From now on, more than one person in the district will be responsible for alerting the commission to problem teachers, making it less likely, he said, that a report will escape attention. And the superintendent will be notified about potential filings.
The school system also ordered employees to take a refresher seminar this week on the reporting of abuse. Teachers were told to redouble their efforts to avoid any potentially troublesome situations: They should not help students with their clothes, and they should avoid physical displays of affection, such as hugs and pats on the buttocks. They should also pay close attention to the behavior of others — for example, if they see a teacher socializing alone with a student off campus.
L.A. Unified made changes in the way it handles allegations of sexual misconduct in the years after the arrest of former Assistant Principal Steve Thomas Rooney in 2008.
An investigation into alleged gun wielding initially resulted in Rooney’s being pulled from his school. But he was later reassigned to a different school even after police alerted officials to a sexual relationship between Rooney and an underage student. Prosecutors didn’t file charges. The district didn’t follow up internally, and Rooney went on to molest students at his next assignment.
In the years since, “it’s highly unlikely that a Hernandez case could happen,” Deasy said. “We’re aggressively [dismissing] far more people for performance, let alone criminal acts. Our screening and awareness procedures are much tighter.”
But the tightened procedures didn’t catch Berndt, even after some parents complained about his penchant for taking odd photos of students, which were presumed to be innocuous at the time.
The new attention to the Hernandez case has prompted a discussion about bringing him to justice.
Hernandez, who is a fugitive, is charged with indecent exposure and possession of child pornography. The second charge relates to a video he allegedly made of himself in which he molests a student in an Inglewood classroom. Police in Huntington Park, where students are served by L.A. Unified, discovered the video and said they believe that Hernandez is in the Mexican state of Jalisco.
As soon as authorities nail down his exact location, they will seek his extradition, said Los Angeles County Deputy Dist. Atty. Diana Martinez.
Times staff writers Richard Winton and Alan Zarembo contributed to this report.
The perils of parenting through a pandemic
What’s going on with school? What do kids need? Get 8 to 3, a newsletter dedicated to the questions that keep California families up at night.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.