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SANDY BANKS

District's failure to act devalues its students

May 17, 2008|SANDY BANKS

Never mind rising test scores, high-tech campuses, pride-worthy academic decathlon teams. You can better gauge a school system's shot at greatness by looking at how students are treated by district leaders.

We've been allowed to peek behind the curtain in Los Angeles Unified recently and watch administrative bungling that makes a mockery of the district's pledge to value "the equal worth and dignity of all students."

In March, we learned that administrators in South Los Angeles had failed to investigate allegations that a high school teacher had a sexual relationship with a student. Then they made Steve Thomas Rooney an assistant principal at Markham Middle School in Watts. He's in jail now, charged with having unlawful sex with a former student and molesting two girls from the Markham campus.

In another case this month, the principal and an assistant principal at South East High were slapped with criminal charges for failing to report a student's allegations that a substitute teacher had sex with her.

Four administrators and a dean have been disciplined in the two cases for ignoring district policies on reporting and investigating abuse allegations. I find that encouraging.

I'd like to believe Deputy Supt. Ray Cortines, who told me the punishment will send a message to district employees. They have a "responsibility to protect our young people," he said. "And we expect them to follow the rules and regulations."

But I don't buy it. I'm still stuck on Cortines' account of how South East High officials responded when he called them on the carpet.

"They asked, 'How come you are doing this to me when it was brought to our attention by a school policeman?' " Cortines said. "Why didn't he report it? Why are we expected to report it? We thought he would report it."

Buck passing is an art in Los Angeles Unified. So, apparently, is ignoring rules and regulations.

The district's 26-page "Child Abuse and Neglect Reporting Requirements" bulletin is required reading by every new employee and anyone given a new assignment.

It obligates every employee to report suspected child abuse immediately to an outside law enforcement or child protection agency. Schools officials don't begin their investigation until police work is done.

But at South East High, the girl told a counselor, a school police officer and the principal and assistant principal that a teacher had sex with her. The administrators grilled her for more than two hours. She recanted.

In the Rooney case, his arrest for brandishing a gun plus the sexual allegations should have kept the man off campus until police and school officials completed their investigations

I don't believe these administrators are evil. But they reflect the culture of complacency in a district that appears more concerned with the convenience of adults than the needs of children.

But it's not the broken rules and policy violations that trouble me most.

As a parent, I have to wonder how a school principal can spend two hours listening to a 17-year-old recount sexual encounters with her teacher and not want to wring the teacher's neck.

Damn the rules. Where's the outrage? Didn't anyone stop and say, "Holy cow, if this guy did this, maybe I ought to dig a little deeper?"

I've got a lot of institutional memory when it comes to this school district. I spent years in the 1980s and '90s covering it. But the story that stays with me most -- one of the district's darkest moments -- came more than 20 years ago, when South Los Angeles elementary school teacher Terry Bartholome was sentenced to 44 years in prison for molesting 13 girls in his third-grade class.

Sixth-graders, and their parents, at his previous school had complained for years that Mr. B had fondled the girls in class, made crude sexual remarks and forced them to put their hands in his pockets and touch "his privates." They took their stories to the principal, who had him transferred to another school.

A few months later, a group of students at the new school began making similar complaints.

By then, three principals, at least two regional administrators and a school police officer had heard accounts of the allegations. But no one bothered to tell police or even check out their stories.

It took a report by an adult -- Bartholome's classroom aide, who said he admitted to her that he was a pedophile -- to get Bartholome arrested.

Cortines says he has tried to balance the rights of employees with the needs of students in these latest cases. He suspended the South East administrators from campus but was deluged by e-mails from teachers, parents and students, asking that they be allowed back for the semester's busy final weeks. There's the prom and graduation to plan.

As for the student whose complaint led to criminal charges against the teacher?

"She was uneasy continuing at the school," Cortines said, "because people were blaming her for the principal's removal." She agreed to transfer to an independent study program.

That means the girl -- a student whose "worth and dignity" are so valued -- will spend her final weeks of high school at home, wondering what went wrong.

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sandy.bank@latimes.com

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