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GOP Lawmakers Aim To Protect Students From Dangerous Classroom Predators

by Assemblywoman Connie Conway, published

SACRAMENTO – Prompted by the recent allegations of disturbing teacher misconduct in the Los Angeles Unified School District, Senate and Assembly Republicans today unveiled legislation to ensure student safety and expedite the process to remove educators who engage in criminal behavior.

“Public schools are supposed to be havens for safe learning, not a proving ground for sexual predators,” said Senate Republican Leader Bob Huff, of Diamond Bar.  “The recent arrest of two Miramonte Elementary teachers for lewd acts against their students shows that we must change the law to protect our kids.  That’s why Republicans are standing with Mayor Villaraigosa and Los Angeles Unified to enact reforms to empower local districts and ensure that a Miramonte-like tragedy never happens again.”

“Parents have enough to worry about these days without having to fear for their children’s safety when they are at school,” said Assembly Republican Leader Connie Conway, of Tulare.  “The unspeakable crimes that Miramonte students were victims of must never happen again. This is why it is so important that we come together – Republicans and Democrats alike – and pass these reforms.”

The proposals by Senate and Assembly Republicans, which will be introduced this week as legislation, would enact urgent reforms as requested in letters to the Governor and legislative leaders by Mayor Villaraigosa and L.A. Unified officials.  These measures were crafted in response to recent incidents such as the current scandal surrounding Mark Berndt, a third grade teacher investigated by law enforcement for more than two years for lewd acts against his students.  He was arrested earlier this year and charged with 23 counts of lewd conduct. Among the reforms that Republicans are proposing today are:

·         Eliminating Restrictions in Union Contracts – Would prohibit bargaining agreements from restricting the maintenance of records or use of prior evidence of allegations in new investigations.

·         Removing “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.

·         Ending 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.

·         Reforming 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.

·         Conforming 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.

·         Creating 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.

·         Stripping Pension from Felons – Would strip pension and retiree benefits from teachers who are convicted of a felony related to their job.

“As a former police officer, I know firsthand the threats facing our kids on the streets, but the Miramonte case has exposed a different threat – teachers who prey on kids in the classroom,” said Assembly Public Safety Committee Vice Chair Steve Knight (R-Antelope Valley).   “State law and union contracts must never put our children at risk of becoming crime victims.  Passing these reforms will give school districts and law enforcement new tools to get these predators out of the classroom.”

“Right now, it takes school districts months or even years to dismiss teachers who have committed sexual or other immoral acts while on the job,” said Assemblyman Cameron Smyth (R-Santa Clarita).  “It is unconscionable that local schools have to jump through so many hoops to get criminals out of the classroom, and it is an affront to the overwhelming majority of teachers who work hard each and every school-day to educate our children.  We must reform the law to empower districts to rid our schools of dangerous individuals and end retirement benefits for predators.”

“Both parents and teachers agree that the system is broken and puts students in harm’s way,” said Senator Sam Blakeslee (R-San Luis Obispo), a member of the Senate Education Committee. “A balance must be struck that protects due process but ensures vigorous safeguards are in place to quickly remove those that prey on children from the classroom.”

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