California Senate bill: Schools could fire bad teachers
SACRAMENTO — Local school boards would have the authority to fire teachers accused of violent, sex or drug offenses involving children under a bill that passed a legislative committee on Wednesday in the wake of an egregious teacher misconduct case.
Sen. Alex Padilla's Senate Bill 1530 was prompted by outrage over the case of a Los Angeles Unified School District teacher accused of blindfolding his students and spoon-feeding them semen.
Padilla, D-Los Angeles, won unanimous approval for his bill from the Senate Education Committee despite opposition from teachers unions. The legislation would let school boards dismiss teachers, rather than leaving the decision to a three-member disciplinary commission.
Marysville Joint Unified board member Frank Crawford said his feelings on the legislation are mixed.
"I am a strong proponent of due process, but there have been too many times where these (cases) have hung in limbo for years and the teachers are put on paid administrative leave at the cost of the taxpayer because we can't act as a local board and they are so backlogged at the state level," he said.
He said he needs to study the bill more but understands its logic, although everyone deserves "a day in court."
There has to be a happy medium, Crawford added. And at some point, voters must have faith in the board members they elected to make the right decision.
"I'm not looking at a witch hunt, but if someone needs to go, someone needs to go," he said.
Padilla's bill is one of several this year responding to hea line-grabbing incidents involving teachers.
On Tuesday, the Assembly Public Safety Committee rejected a bill that would have made it a felony for teachers to date their students. A.B. 1861 by Assemblywoman Kristin Olsen, R-Modesto, was prompted by the high-profile case of a 41-year-old Modesto teacher who left his wife and three children to move in with an 18 year-old student.
Padilla said his bill "empowers elective school board officials to act decisively without undermining the rights of teachers." He said dismissals currently can take up to five years and frequently result in resignations rather than outright firings because the process is so cumbersome.
The bill would lift a current prohibition on considering evidence of wrongdoing that dates back more than four years, but only in cases of serious and egregious conduct involving sexual, drug or violent crimes involving children. Those disciplinary charges would be reviewed by an administrative law judge, who would make a recommendation to the school board for a final decision. A dismissed teacher could still file an appeal in court, as under current law.
The bill was prompted by the case of Mark Berndt, who is charged with extensive lewd conduct with his students.
Prosecutors say he made students at Miramonte Elementary School play a bizarre "tasting game," blindfolding and feeding them his semen on cookies and spoons from 2005 to 2008.
There were complaints of sexual misconduct against Berndt as long ago as 1994, but the earlier investigations did not result in any action and the complaints were put into an "expired file." Berndt has pleaded not guilty to 23 counts of lewdness on a child.
"We need to address the problem of serious misconduct when these awful things take place," said Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent John Deasy, who testified in favor of the bill.
"It's not an isolated problem," Deasy said. Since January 2003, he said 667 teachers statewide were cited for serious misconduct. Just 82 resulted in the teacher's dismissal.
"That does not even pass a reasonable smell test," Deasy said.
Of the 82 firings, 32 were for sexual or moral misconduct, he said.
Of those teachers allowed to return to the classroom, he said 24 had been accused of sexual or moral misconduct but often were reinstated because investigators could not substantiate the claims of the children who accused them.
L.A. Unified school board member Nury Martinez said she faces parents almost weekly who are angry that teachers accused of extreme misconduct still are employed by the district.
"When a child has been abused, a school community does not want to hear about antiquated sections of the school code," Martinez said in testifying for Padilla's bill.
Unions oppose bill
Representatives of teacher unions said the bill goes too far in undermining teachers' due process rights. Existing state laws already allow school districts to remove accused teachers from the classroom and eventually fire them while observing procedural safeguards, they testified.
"Teachers are under attack," said Ken Tray, who was representing the California Federation of Teachers.
He said the recent high-profile incidents involving a few teachers has created a "cloud of hysteria reminding one almost of the Salem witch hunts."
Teacher firing decisions should not be left to school boards, he said, because they are highly politicized and under pressure to side with angry parents and the community.
"All we're asking for is a degree of protection and due process," Tray said.
Padilla's bill cleared the committee with bipartisan support.