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TIM RUTTEN

Let down, again, by LAUSD

May 14, 2008|TIM RUTTEN

Every day, the Los Angeles Unified School District fails its tens of thousands of ambitious students, dedicated teachers and hardworking principals in so many ways that it's difficult to imagine how its elephantine bureaucracy could shamble into some new outrage.

Difficult, but not impossible, because the LAUSD runs this city's schools about like the generals run Myanmar.

Put aside for a moment the fact that the district can't figure out how to graduate a decent number of its students, or even how to pay its teachers on a reliable basis. Ignore the Daily News' report this week that the administration, confronted with what may be half a billion dollars in budget cuts, nonetheless is spending $173 million on consultants, many of them connected to various bureaucratic functions -- like making the computers in the superintendent's office work.

Consider, instead, how the LAUSD's highest officials have chosen to deal with what would seem to be the fairly straightforward problem of child molestation. As The Times' Richard Winton and Howard Blume reported Tuesday, Supt. David L. Brewer and Senior Deputy Supt. Ramon C. Cortines reinstated a pair of South Gate high school administrators who had failed to report a student's allegation of sexual abuse by a substitute teacher. County prosecutors, who criminally charged the pair, are outraged.

It's as if the LAUSD never learns. Earlier this year, remember, the district pulled former assistant principal Steve Rooney out of the Foshay Learning Center in South L.A. after the police informed it that he was suspected of having sex with a student. After a brief stint at a non-school job, Rooney was assigned to a middle school in Watts, where he allegedly molested two more students.

Brewer and Cortines feel the two South Gate administrators, who face criminal charges for failing to report the student's allegation, have suffered enough. After all, they were suspended for three days without pay and had a reprimand placed in their personnel files. Cortines -- who recently was installed at the LAUSD to prop up the foundering Brewer -- told The Times, "I want them to use their experience to share with others so we don't have this situation happening again."

Cortines' explanation has an appropriately pedagogic air -- until you stop and think about it. At the very least, the district should have kept South East High principal Jesus Angulo and assistant principal Maria Sotomayor on administrative leave until the criminal charges are resolved, though the senior deputy said their jobs are safe even if they're convicted. That makes his assertion that the returning administrators will somehow become object lessons about the importance of following state laws even more laughable.

If the pair had been sent back with the words "criminal incompetent" branded on their foreheads, he might have a point. Somehow, "Gee folks, don't forget to report child molesters -- or you'll get a harsh note in your permanent record," doesn't seem like much of a deterrent.

Of course, when the district's turf is at risk, its actions are swift and harsh. As The Times reported in another article Tuesday, the district last spring quickly removed Frank Wells, the principal at troubled Locke High School. Was he replaced because of the school's abysmal academic performance? Or because the campus is seething with gang activity and violent ethnic tensions between African American and Latino students?

Naw. Wells was sacked after openly supporting efforts to convert Locke into a charter school.

Maybe it's too much to demand that our schools be entirely insulated from the social ills of the communities around them. Still, it doesn't seem too much to ask that children be physically safe while they're on campus. And while it's probably not feasible to keep every swaggering little gangster or bullying race baiter off the school grounds, it certainly seems reasonable to expect that students will be protected from their teachers' criminal impulses. At a bare minimum, every allegation of faculty or staff misconduct should be treated with all the urgency that the law, decency and a simple sense of adult responsibility demand of anyone entrusted with the welfare of children.

Clueless and smug, neither Brewer nor Cortines seems to understand this. Instead, they've chosen to address a genuine human tragedy -- an adult's fundamental betrayal of a child -- in the language of callous bureaucracy, a dialect in which euphemism piles on evasion and indifference compounds mendacity until an edifice of wispy gray banality arises to shield the unforgivable from critical view.

One of the LAUSD's high-priced consultants was paid to give "media interview and presentation training to the superintendent, members of senior staff and cabinet." Was there a special session for Brewer and Cortines titled, "Defending the Indefensible"?

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timothy.rutten@latimes.com

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