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2 state bills on teacher misconduct pass hurdles

The California Senate bill would modify the dismissal process for teachers accused of serious misconduct involving sex, violence or drugs. The Assembly bill deals with a wider range of offenses.

April 23, 2012|By Howard Blume, Los Angeles Times

Two bills dealing with teacher sexual misconduct are making their way through the Legislature, with each passing a key hurdle last week. One bill passed the state Senate Education Committee, and separate legislation moved through state Assembly Education Committee.

The legislation is fallout from the arrest of former Miramonte Elementary School teacher Mark Berndt, who has pleaded not guilty to 23 counts of lewd conduct with students. Investigators allege that he spoon-fed his semen to blindfolded students as part of what he called a "tasting" game.

The Senate bill, by state Sen. Alex Padilla (D-Pacoima), would modify the dismissal process for teachers accused of serious misconduct involving sex, violence or drugs. The key provisions of SB 1530 include letting a local school board make the final decision on firing a teacher accused of misconduct. A teacher could appeal to an administrative law judge, but the judge's ruling would not be binding on a school board.

Currently, an independent appeals panel can overturn a firing, and the appeals panel consists of a judge and two teachers.

The Los Angeles Unified School District paid Berndt a settlement of $40,000 rather than risk the cost and uncertain outcome from an appeals panel that might not have access to the police evidence.

SB 1059, sponsored by Senate Republican leader Bob Huff of Diamond Bar, addresses similar issues but failed to make it out of the Senate Education Committee. Its twin in the state Assembly did survive in an amended form in the Education Committee of that house. The legislation, AB 2028, is sponsored by Stephen Knight (R-Palmdale) and Cameron Smyth (R-Santa Clarita). It would amend the dismissal process for a broader range of offenses than the Padilla bill.

Both surviving bills would allow dismissal proceedings to take place all year long — not just during the school year. And both would allow the use of evidence that is older than 4 years.

In Los Angeles, some problem teachers may have escaped continued scrutiny and potential discipline because their files were routinely purged of old allegations.

In committee deliberations, both bills lost provisions that would have shortened the dismissal process by allowing school districts to proceed with dismissals without a waiting period. The bills face one more committee review before going to a vote by the full house.

Critics, including some teachers union leaders, have said that legislators are overreaching by unnecessarily weakening important job protections for employees. Missteps in the cases of Berndt and others accused of molestation were a product of poor management, not bad laws, they said.

The bills have been supported by L.A. Unified and L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.

Separate legislation is pending that would strip pensions from teachers convicted of sexual misconduct related to their employment.

howard.blume@latimes.com

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