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L.A. Unified to report all teacher misconduct cases to state

The action, aimed at protecting students, covers hundreds of teachers who have been investigated by school officials or police for alleged misdeeds ranging from sexual abuse to excessive absenteeism.

February 23, 2012|By Howard Blume, Los Angeles Times
  • Former L.A. Unified and Inglewood substitute teacher George Hernandez fled after he was charged with abusing a second-grade student and is believed to be in Mexico.
Former L.A. Unified and Inglewood substitute teacher George Hernandez… (Huntington Park Police…)

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.

TABLE: Schools where George Hernandez worked

"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.

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