Los Angeles Unified would create a team of professional investigators to handle serious misconduct complaints against teachers as part of a new plan to overhaul the district's disciplinary process, which has been criticized as costly, unwieldy and unfair.
Set for a vote on April 16, the resolution by school board member Tamar Galatzan would take investigations of alleged physical or sexual abuse away from principals and put them into the hands of professionals. The investigations would involve employees cleared of any crime by police but still suspected of violating state or district codes of conduct.
"Some of the people who are tasked with doing investigations of suspected child abuse or sexual misconduct don't have the level of training to be able to handle them," said Galatzan, who is also a prosecutor for the City Attorney's Office. "Administrators are trained to ferret out allegations of cheating, but when it comes to conducting detailed investigations, like handling evidence and interviewing witnesses, we haven't necessarily done a good job of training them."
Protect Children and Safeguard Due Process resolution for the LAUSD Board of Education by Los Angeles Daily News
For decades, teachers accused of misconduct have been pulled from the classroom and "housed" in district offices while administrators investigate the allegations and decide their fate. The process typically drags on for months, with teachers collecting their full pay -- an average of $6,000 a month, plus benefits -- until they're returned to work or fired.
The system drew little notice until last year's sex-abuse scandals involving teachers at Miramonte and Telfair Elementary schools prompted a flood of new allegations.
Hundreds of teachers were pulled from the classroom after the district received what it considered a "credible allegation" of misconduct. Dozens were put on-track for firing after the district quietly enacted a zero-tolerance policy for physical or verbal abuse.
Last year, the board fired 99 teachers, most for misconduct, and allowed 122 others to resign rather than face termination, according to district officials. Through Feb. 21 of this year, 24 teachers have been fired, half for misconduct and half for incompetence, and 92 were allowed to resign.
As more and more educators were assigned to what some call "teacher jail," they began complaining to Galatzan and others about the district's disciplinary system.
Some said they were treated disrespectfully while they were housed, although procedures varied from office to office. Others said the system itself is weighted against them, presuming them guilty and denying them the chance to prove otherwise.
They expressed frustration with the policy that prevents them from being advised of the allegations against them until the investigation is complete. Even then, they said, the district is slow to act, delaying their return to the classroom or keeping them in limbo about their fate.
After a state audit released in November criticized LAUSD for its handling of teacher misconduct cases, citing instances in which investigations had inexplicably stalled for months, Galatzan began meeting with district officials, union leaders and parents to address their concerns.
"The prosecutor side of me understands the criminal investigation and proceedings that frequently go on. Couple that with the fact that I'm a parent and a district employee and a board member and I see how it gets played out at the school site," said Galatzan, who represents the West San Fernando Valley.
"This is one of those issues where, depending where you are in the continuum, you have a different perspective," she said. "Given the same incident, different people see what happened, and what should have happened, differently. They say the problem is here, or here, or here."
While Galatzan's proposal wouldn't resolve all of the concerns, it would create what she hopes is more efficient and effective process for dealing with abuse complaints.
Teachers also would be told -- at least in general terms -- why they are being housed and how long they might be out of their classroom. Housed employees would also be treated in a "respectful and professional manner," with uniform procedures established at all district offices.
There would also be tighter deadlines for handling investigations, and administrators would have to justify any delay to the school board.
However, the most important recommendation, Galatzan said, would be to hire professional investigators -- preferably with a law enforcement background and expertise in collecting evidence and interviewing youngsters -- to handle cases of abuse and sexual misconduct.
She and others believe that professionals would be able to resolve cases more quickly and that their involvement would eliminate any concerns about favoritism or retaliation toward the accused.
"Whatever system is set up, we need to be sure that the investigator has independence. The mandate is to have a thorough and fair and complete investigation, without a concern for politics," said Warren Fletcher, president of United Teachers Los Angeles.
"This is about having people who know what to look for -- not just to clear innocent teachers but to catch the ones who aren't. The goal of any process has to be schools where kids are safe," he said.
Judith President, president of Associated Administrators of Los Angeles, said principals are educated to be instructional leaders -- not investigators -- and most feel ill-equipped to look into abuse allegations despite the training they receive from the district.
"It's more than knowing what questions to ask," Perez said. "There's confidentiality and being sensitive and knowing how to talk to the children. "
Capt. Fabian Lizarraga, who commands the Juvenile Division for the Los Angeles Police Department, said it takes skill, experience and a special knack for dealing with children to effectively investigate cases in which youngsters may have been victimized.
His detectives -- who includes those who review complaints against LAUSD teachers for possible criminal activity -- have to work their way up through the system, and continue to receive training to hone their interview techniques.
"There's a certain level of experience and expertise in talking to kids, to get them to the level where they feel safe enough and comfortable enough to give us the information," Lizarraga said.
Los Angeles Unified officials say the district has worked hard to train principals in investigative techniques, such as reviewing case studies compiled by law enforcement and conducting role-playing sessions. Still, they acknowledge there would be benefits to having professionals handle the complicated cases.
"It would be reassuring to the school community," said Ira Berman, director of Employee Relations. "It takes it out of that personal back-and-forth. "
Galatzan's resolution gives Superintendent John Deasy 90 days to come up with a plan for creating an investigative team, including how it would be funded. Deasy has previously said he wanted to hire two investigators with law-enforcement backgrounds to handle complex abuse cases. That plan is still in the works, officials said, and might now be combined with Galatzan's resolution.
The plan is co-sponsored by board President Monica Garcia as well as board member Bennett Kayser, a UTLA ally whose views often run counter to Galatzan.
A veteran science teacher, Kayser said he felt strongly trying to improve about the district discipline process.
"I want bad teachers removed from the classroom, as they harm our students and the profession," he said. "On the flip side, many good teachers have been left to rot in so-called teacher jail, with no due process or even knowledge of what they are accused of.
"This motion strikes a fair balance, but one that puts our students first." ___