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Teacher sex cases highlight Calif. agency’s role

SHARE Teacher sex cases highlight Calif. agency’s role

LOS ANGELES — The failure by Los Angeles school officials to report two suspected pedophiles to the state's teacher licensing commission has put a spotlight on the obscure agency that was reeling last year from a scathing audit that found a backlog of 12,600 cases.

The Commission on Teacher Credentialing has since cleared that backlog and has taken a more proactive approach to a current wave of cases that have followed the scandal rocking the Los Angeles Unified School District.

School districts across California are reviewing teacher disciplinary files and regulations for reporting serious misconduct in the wake of arrests of two teachers at Miramonte Elementary School in a poor Los Angeles neighborhood. The commission has reported an uptick in the number of inquiries over the past month over reporting requirements, as well as 65 new cases from LAUSD, which is likely to submit more as it combs through files to ensure all cases of teacher misconduct have been reported.

"Anytime a spotlight is put on an issue, people want to check," said Bob Wells, executive director of the Association of California School Administrators, which has also seen a rise in concern among members about reporting requirements.

The commission fired off a letter last month to LAUSD, stating that it never received a report about one of the accused Miramonte teachers, Mark Berndt, who is charged with 23 counts of lewd acts on children, and sternly reminding the district of its legal obligation to report teacher misconduct.

The new focus on reporting errant teachers, stemming from the Miramonte case and a separate one involving another former LAUSD teacher, George Hernandez, underscores the role of the little-known Sacramento-based agency charged with the licensing and professional discipline of teachers.

In the Hernandez case, LAUSD's failure to report that he resigned in 2007 amid his third molestation investigation allowed him to be hired a couple of months later at a neighboring district, Inglewood Unified, where another molestation claim surfaced three years later, a lawyer for Inglewood Unified said.

"If LAUSD had reported this guy, we would've been alerted to the fact that there was at least a report on him, or his license would have been suspended or revoked," said attorney Gary Gibeaut. "This wouldn't have happened."

Hernandez, 45, fled after he bailed out of jail in September 2010 and is a fugitive believed to be in Mexico. The mother of a 7-year-old girl who alleged that Hernandez repeatedly fondled her is suing Inglewood Unified, which filed a cross-suit against LAUSD.

Cases where an accused molester slips through the cracks are not uncommon, said Charol Shakeshaft, an expert on teacher sex misconduct at Virginia Commonwealth University.

"There needs to be a national registry of teachers charged with sexual misconduct," she said. "A lot of them go to private schools where they don't need a state credential."

Sexual misconduct offenses, along with drug offenses involving children, are among the infractions the commission takes most seriously. Upon being charged by the district attorney, the teacher's license is automatically suspended. Upon conviction, the license is automatically revoked, and if a teacher is found innocent, the commission can take action against the teacher's license on the grounds of unprofessional conduct.

But even if the teacher has not been charged, districts are required by state law to report employees who have a sexual misconduct complaint filed against them. They must also report teachers who are fired or suspended for more than 10 days for misconduct, or who resign or retire amid an investigation of alleged misconduct.

In an emailed statement, LAUSD said the Berndt, Hernandez and other cases were not reported due to "human error and systemic challenges in tracking documents."

The district said its human resources department has since tightened up internal procedures to ensure all future cases are submitted, including assigning two employees to review each case and implementing case tracking systems.

To be sure that no one is missed, the district is resubmitting all cases for the past three academic years.

"Even one unreported case is too many," LAUSD Superintendent John Deasy said.

The commission is evaluating the increased workload, the agency said. Last year, it employed temporary student assistants and paid $33,000 in overtime to staffers to clear its case backlog.

Sex crimes comprise only a fraction of the teacher misconduct cases handled annually. Of the 5,400 cases the commission reviewed last year, only 129 involved sex crimes with children. Alcohol offenses, such as DUIs and public drunkenness, are the biggest single category, comprising about 30 percent of cases.

Most infractions are not reported by school districts, but by the state Department of Justice, which sends arrest reports to the commission based on suspects' fingerprints. Teachers' fingerprints are kept on file with the commission. Districts only reported 241 cases of the 5,700 in the 2009-10 fiscal year. Another 130 reports came from affidavits signed by witnesses to the misconduct.

A seven-member commission, mostly comprising educators, decides on discipline, which can encompass anything from a private admonition placed in the teacher's personnel file, a public reproval sent to the district, license suspension or revocation.

Following the audit, the commission is now focusing on ways to speed up processing of cases. It's scanning paper documents and considering a plan that would exempt first-time DUI offenders from commission review, as long as the offense is not school-related, among other items.

Shakeshaft said state agencies charged with overseeing teacher licenses often toil with small staffs and big workloads because their value in protecting children is underestimated.

"They're really under a huge weight," she said.


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