Los Angeles Unified School District slow to report on teacher misconduct

(Los Angeles Times) Los Angeles school officials failed to promptly report nearly 150 cases of suspected teacher misconduct — including allegations of sexual contact with students — to state authorities as required by law, an audit released Thursday concluded.

The findings come 10 months after the Los Angeles Unified School District was rocked by the arrest of a teacher at Miramonte Elementary School for allegedly spoon-feeding semen to students in a classroom.

At the time, district officials acknowledged that they did not swiftly send all serious misconduct allegations to the Commission on Teacher Credentialing, which keeps a database that school systems use to verify teaching licenses.The audit found that L.A. Unified submitted at least 144 cases of alleged teacher misconduct more than a year later than required, 31 of them more than three years late.

As a result, the commission was unable to “determine promptly whether it was appropriate to revoke the teachers’ certificates and thus prevent the individuals from working in other school districts,” according to the report.

In one case, the district reported an alleged sexual relationship between a teacher and a student in March — 3 1/2 years after the teacher left the district over the incident, the audit said. The “lack of timely reporting” prevented the commission from taking steps to keep the teacher from working elsewhere.

A Times investigation earlier this year examined another case in which L.A. Unified failed to report allegations against a former teacher who was later hired by another district.

During five years as a frequent substitute teacher, George Hernandez was investigated by police three times over allegations of sexual misconduct involving students. L.A. Unified did not report Hernandez to the state commission, and Hernandez subsequently became a substitute in the Inglewood Unified School District for nearly three years, through August 2010.

He now faces charges in connection with allegedly molesting a student in a classroom.

L.A. Unified officials said Thursday that they agreed with the audit’s findings and that they have already addressed the issues raised.

The audit “captured accurately what the district has done in terms of improvement and where the district was,” L.A. schools Supt. John Deasy said Thursday. He said he was “thankful and appreciative for the honesty and accuracy” of the audit.

Officials admitted they had not promptly alerted the credentialing panel about an investigation into allegations that Mark Berndt, the Miramonte teacher, had allegedly taken dozens of photos of students, some gagged, others being fed tainted cookies. Previous reports of questionable behavior by Berndt had failed to result in any discipline before his arrest.

Berndt is charged with 23 counts of lewd conduct and is being held in lieu of $23-million bail. He has pleaded not guilty.

After his arrest in January, the nation’s second-largest school system reviewed old files for evidence of other potential problem employees, submitted 600 records from the last four years to state regulators, and pledged to inform parents within 72 hours when an employee is removed from a school during an investigation into sexual misconduct. The district also improved its system of tracking misconduct allegations.

The audit, which examined six schools and selected misconduct allegations from 2007 to the present, also found that the district acted too slowly internally.

One example was an eight-month delay between the conclusion of an investigation and “the date on which the school’s principal issued a memo to the employee about the incident, with no indication of anything occurring in the interim,” auditors wrote. “According to district staff, the principal struggled to write the memo.”

Other delays were blamed on poor past procedures and staff reductions because of budget cuts.

Deasy ordered the massive filing as a precaution, and also directed principals and other staff to find and review documentation going back decades. This extensive review has not resulted in any current staff being disciplined or removed from work pending further investigation, Deasy said.

Reports to the commission include suspected sexual molestation and such other misconduct as drug use, hitting a student, abusive language or cheating on standardized tests. Districts must report to the panel within 30 days when conduct results in a suspension of at least 10 days or a change in job status, such as a resignation or retirement. Sex or drug abuse charges involving minors must be reported within 10 days.

The audit was conducted by the California state auditor at the behest of the state Legislature’s audit committee, which is chaired by Assemblyman Ricardo Lara (D-Bell Gardens).

The audit exposed “some appalling information,” said Lara, whose district includes Miramonte in the Florence-Firestone area.

Teachers union President Warren Fletcher said Thursday that he shares the district’s goal of making student safety paramount, but he faulted Deasy, for example, for replacing the entire Miramonte staff from February through the end of the school year. The superintendent said he had done so to restore public confidence in the school. The teachers returned this fall, clear of any wrongdoing.

“The district’s response has been characterized by wild swings, between previous administrative failures of supervision, followed by extreme overreaction, such as the removal of 85 innocent teachers from Miramonte for over six months,” Fletcher said. “Every time the district overreacts it diverts resources that should have been used to investigate serious misconduct,” said the United Teachers Los Angeles president.

Since the Miramonte case broke, an employee accused of a misdeed is typically pulled quickly from a school and “housed” in an office while the case is resolved. In mid-November there were 298 “housed” employees. Before Berndt’s arrest, there were about 160.

By September, the district had paid $3 million in salaries to 20 employees whom the district has kept off campus the longest, including one employee removed for 4 1/2 years.

On average, these employees are in limbo for 127 days, the district said. The cost to replace a teacher with a substitute is either $173 or $274 a day depending on whether the substitute is working day to day or for a longer period.

If a substitute works enough days to qualify for benefits, the cost is about an additional $100 a day, according to L.A. Unified.

Not all delays are the fault of L.A. Unified, which can’t begin its own probe without clearance from law enforcement, auditors said.

The audit also faulted the state for having no mechanism to report non-teaching employees to a central agency. In L.A. Unified about 12% of those facing misconduct allegations have been employees other than teachers.

One such notable case also occurred at Miramonte.

In 2005, aide Ricardo Guevara was found guilty of lewd acts with children and sentenced to 15 years to life in prison. Previous allegations against Guevara had not resulted in his dismissal.

In the Berndt case, 126 students and 63 parents have filed claims for damages against L.A. Unified. There are also two lawsuits on behalf of 33 students and one involving 11 parents.