Spotlight: Protecting Students from Classroom Predators
Miramonte Case Spotlights Disturbing Problem in the Classroom
In 2012, two teachers at Miramonte Elementary School in Los Angeles were arrested for alleged lewd acts against students on campus. These incidents, along with others reported across the state, have frightened parents statewide.
In one case, Mark Berndt was investigated by police for more than two years for lewd acts against his students. He was finally arrested earlier this year and charged with 23 counts of lewd conduct in his classroom against students between 7 and 10. He had been a teacher at Miramonte since 1979.1 Three days later, another Miramonte teacher, Martin Bernard Springer, was arrested and charged with lewd acts against two former students. Springer had been a teacher at Miramonte since 1986.2
State Law and Union Contracts Tie Hands of Local Districts
District officials had to pay Berndt $40,000 to drop challenges to his dismissal last year because existing law made it difficult for the district to collect the needed internal evidence to justify the firing.3
Teacher union contracts and state laws have tied the hands of local school officials from getting these predators out of the classroom sooner. Right now, union contracts hinder the ability of districts to investigate charges swiftly and remove predators from the classroom. Many contracts mandate that misconduct allegations that do not result in disciplinary action must be removed from personnel files after four years.
According to press reports, there were several complaints against Berndt filed over the years, but none resulted in action and the complaints were removed from his file after four years. This is not isolated to Los Angeles Unified. According to press reports, similar provisions are in teacher union contracts in Long Beach, Fresno, Sacramento and San Diego schools.4
Districts are also hamstrung by the dismissal process, forced to complete 10 complex steps that can last years. Once a district moves to terminate, appeals may be filed to a review panel and the courts.
Commissions on Professional Competence are often difficult to convene and can hinder the termination process altogether. They are comprised of an administrative law judge, and 2 educators, 1 appointed by the district and 1 appointed by the accused. It is often tough even to find panelists to serve. Even when there is merit, these panels can overturn findings of wrongdoing and termination orders. Violations of notification requirements and technicalities can also lead to a case being dismissed.5
While cases are proceeding, the accused are removed from the classroom. A 2009 Los Angeles Times report found that 160 teachers and staff were being paid to do nothing in non-classroom assignments after being accused for offenses like sexual contact with students and harassment, costing taxpayers $10 million a year in salary.6 If dismissed, they are also eligible for full pension and retiree benefits. With significant costs and high burdens of proof, districts often don't pursue charges at all. The Los Angeles Mayor's office reports the average dismissal proceedings can cost districts $300,000 per case.
The Office of Administrative Hearings recorded just 110 hearings for teacher dismissal between 2003 and 2010.7 In the 68 cases where there was a termination, 25 involved sexual or immoral conduct. Since the Miramonte scandal broke, Los Angeles Unified has filed 110 cases with the Commission on Teacher Credentialing, 83 of which were not previously reported. A sample found 50 percent involved physical abuse and 25 percent involved inappropriate sexual contact with a student.8
Bipartisan Reforms to Protect Students
In February 2012, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa wrote a letter to Governor Brown and the bipartisan legislative leaders urging Sacramento to change teacher dismissal laws that "make it difficult to dismiss teachers who violate the public trust of our families and students." The Los Angeles Unified School District also asked the Legislature to act urgently to pass reforms to give them new tools and fix problems in the law so they can address Miramonte-like tragedies swiftly in the future.
Upon receiving the request, Assembly Republicans proposed legislation to ensure student safety and expedite the process to remove educators who engage in criminal behavior.
The Republican proposals contained many of the legislative changes sought by Mayor Villaraigosa and Los Angeles Unified. Republicans put forward the strongest reforms proposed in 2012 in the Legislature.
As originally introduced, the Republican legislation would:
Eliminate Restrictions in Union Contracts - Would prohibit bargaining agreements from restricting the maintenance of records or use of prior evidence of allegations in new investigations.
Remove "Four Year" Rule - Would allow evidence of past charges of wrongdoing to be held in files longer than the current four year date by which evidence must be removed. Several complaints were filed against Berndt over the years, but none resulted in action and were removed from his file after four years as stipulated by contract provisions. The current policy made it extremely difficult for the district to investigate allegations against Berndt.
End Unnecessary Delays in Dismissal Process - Would eliminate notice requirements used as a technicality to dismiss charges, and allow suspension or dismissal notices to proceed in the summer. Under current law, teachers are reassigned to non-classroom work while dismissal processes are under way. A 2009 Los Angeles Times report found that there were 160 teachers who were removed from the classroom during the dismissal process, costing taxpayers $10 million a year.
Reform the Panel Review Process - Would have panel reviews conducted by an administrative law judge alone, as is done in other states, and make rulings advisory to empower school boards. According to the Los Angeles Mayor's office, the average dismissal proceeding can cost districts $300,000 per case. Due to the cost and heavy burden of pursuing such cases, only 110 dismissal hearings were held statewide between 2003 and 2010, resulting in just 68 terminations. This process is also used by community colleges throughout California for reduction in force layoffs.
Conform Disciplinary Pay - Would allow districts to dismiss teachers for disciplinary reasons with no pay, following an administrative hearing. These individuals would be eligible for back pay if they prevail in the panel hearing or in court. This will conform state law with the current process for handling disciplinary cases with classified employees.
Create a Paper Trail - Would require districts to transfer teachers out of the classroom if there is reasonable cause to believe they are being investigated by law enforcement. Teachers would not be allowed to return to the classroom until the school district reviewed the case and created a paper trail.
Strip Pensions from Felons - Would strip pension and retiree benefits from teachers who are convicted of a felony related to their job.
Unfortunately, politics got in the way and the legislation was defeated on a partisan vote in the Assembly Appropriations Committee.
Following the defeat, CNN ran a nationally-televised report highlighting the fact that the majority party defeated teacher misconduct reform legislation by refusing to vote at all -- despite the outcry from parents.
In 2013, Senate and Assembly Republicans have again proposed reforms to California's teacher misconduct laws. Assembly Bill 1221 (Wilk) and Senate Bill 531 (Knight) will ensure that districts can get dangerous criminals out of the classroom and off the public payroll without unnecessary delay and cost to taxpayers.
1 "Los Angeles teacher charged with lewd acts," Los Angeles Times, February 1, 2012
2 "Second accused South Los Angeles teacher fired, charged," Los Angeles Times, February 8, 2012
3 "Miramonte teacher was paid $40,000 to drop dismissal challenge," Los Angeles Times, February 10, 2012
4 "Teachers' contracts hinder misconduct investigation," Los Angeles Times, February 28, 2012
5 "Firing teachers can be a costly and tortuous task," Los Angeles Times, May 3, 2009
6 "L.A. Unified pays teachers not to teach," Los Angeles Times, May 6, 2009
7 Data from Office of Administration Hearings
8 Data from Commission on Teacher Credentialing report on Los Angeles Unified.