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L.A. school board to consider faster investigation of teachers

Under a proposal by board member Tamar Galatzan, district employees would be told why they've been removed from their job and advised quickly about the length of the inquiry.

April 15, 2013|By Howard Blume, Los Angeles Times
  • After allegations of sexual misconduct at Miramonte Elementary School, there has been a surge in investigations into Los Angeles teachers.
After allegations of sexual misconduct at Miramonte Elementary School,… (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles…)

Sexual misconduct allegations at Miramonte Elementary School sparked a surge of investigations of Los Angeles teachers, pushing the ranks of those in "teacher jail" to more than 300 — and prompting officials this week to consider the rights of accused employees.

On Tuesday, the Board of Education will weigh a proposal designed to speed up and improve investigations, in hopes of quickly ousting the guilty and exonerating the innocent.

"You don't need 300 days to figure out who's a monster," said Carpenter Elementary parent Julia Bricklin.

Under a resolution by board member Tamar Galatzan, district employees would be told why they have been pulled from their job, unless doing so would compromise a law-enforcement investigation. They would also be advised quickly about the expected length of the inquiry and whether they would be paid in the meantime.

Galatzan said that thoroughly protecting children should not create new, unnecessary problems for educators.

"Everyone agreed the process wasn't working," Galatzan said. Some inquiries simply got unnecessarily sidetracked within the bureaucracy, said Galatzan, a prosecutor with the L.A. city attorney's office.

Her resolution sets strict and faster timelines for investigations and would put them in the hands of trained professionals, while also providing more training for principals called on to participate in probes.

The teachers union supports the effort but expressed concern that revised procedures could actually limit due-process rights if misapplied. Galatzan's resolution does not require union approval, but future district rules on handling teacher investigation and discipline could require negotiations with United Teachers Los Angeles.

Critics accuse L.A. schools Supt. John Deasy of a zero-tolerance approach on misconduct that presumes guilt and moves inexorably toward dismissal for minor or unproven infractions.

District officials continue to seek revisions to state law that would allow for speedier dismissals in general. They also want lawmakers totransfer authority for teacher firings from a state panel to local school district control.

Deasy has insisted his only imperative is to prioritize the safety of students above all else.

Galatzan was sought out by parents from her west San Fernando Valley district who felt some highly regarded teachers had been poorly treated as a result of allegations with little credibility. Deserved reputations were tarnished and the education of students was needlessly disrupted, they said.

The parents said they talked to teachers who were kept in the dark about investigations, who were summoned to meetings with virtually no time to prepare, who were exonerated by witnesses but forced to wait months for reinstatement, or who received punishment that appeared out of proportion to the alleged offense.

"I probably would not have gone on this crusade except for a lower-level administrator who said, 'You parents, you're all a bunch of gossips,'" Bricklin said.

The January 2012 arrest of a former Miramonte elementary teacher proved a watershed. Mark Berndt is accused of spoon-feeding his semen to blindfolded students in his classroom, among other allegations. He has pleaded not guilty.

The week before his arrest, there were six allegations of inappropriate conduct between an employee and a student, none sexual, according to documents provided in response to public-records requests.

The week after his arrest, there were 39, and 16 involved sexual misconduct. Reports stayed at comparable levels for weeks. The number of employees pulled from job sites ballooned.

Before Miramonte, about 160 teachers were out of classrooms and schools, either ordered to stay home or to report to district offices to wait out the work day doing nothing in so-called "teacher jails." Last week, the number was 322, even as teacher dismissals also have spiked upward. The number is a minuscule percentage of the workforce, but the cost of substitute employees nonetheless runs into millions of dollars.

When a teacher is accused, any district employee must report the allegation, and officials are now uniformly quick to remove an employee from a school, officials said.

Deasy said many delays in resolving a case result from waiting for police to do their work. Detectives also may limit the information released to the public and to the accused employee, he said.

"Children's safety comes first," he said. "We were not always that explicit in the past."

The superintendent acknowledged, however, that the district was unprepared for the post-Miramonte surge in allegations. Procedures have improved steadily over the last year, he added, including better coordination with law enforcement.

Moving faster won't lead to a better result, unless the investigations are independent and high-caliber, said Warren Fletcher, president of UTLA. He also wants the union to be included in developing better procedures.

"I can think of about 30 things in [Galatzan's proposal] that I might take issue with, but it's important that one of the school board members is coming forward and talking about this issue," Fletcher said.

howard.blume@latimes.com

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