“The standard here is low—reasonable suspicion. The obligation is mandatory reporting, not mandatory investigation on your own.”—Alison Filo, Deputy District Attorney in San Jose, California, quoted in the San Francisco Chronicle.
Filo’s comments were in reference to the recent filing of charges against Lyn Vijayendran, principal of O.B. Whaley Elementary School in Santa Clara County, for failing to report allegations of sexual abuse by one of her teachers. If convicted, Vijayendran faces up to six months in jail.
The situation at Whaley is not unusual or unique. One of my first blog postings on Modern School, “Adults Behaving Badly,” recounted an experience I had during my first year of teaching. When I reported sexual harassment allegations two of my students had made against a colleague, my principal’s response was to ask what I had against this fellow teachers and what I thought he should do about it. In the end, the teacher continued to teach at this school and was ultimately promoted to dean.
Recently LAUSD was rocked by several molestation scandals. Superintendent Deasey’s response was to fire the entire staff at one of the schools, casting the impression that all the teachers were suspect. Meanwhile, pundits and politicians increased their vitriolic claims that teachers’ unions protected molesters and criminals. Indeed, a letter to the editor in today’s SF Chron repeated the absurd charges that the unions are more concerned with protecting perverts than children. Yet in many cases, including the recent ones in San Jose and Los Angeles, numerous allegations had been made against the accused teachers and then either ignored or downplayed by their administrators, allowing them to continue the abuse. It was the administrators, not the unions, who kept the accused teachers in the classrooms.
In May, parents of 20 students at Miramonte Elementary sued Los Angeles Unified School District, and several of its administrators, for failing to act on allegations of molestation and sexual abuse at that school. This week, according to the Los Angeles Times, several of the parents filed an additional suit, claiming they have suffered emotional distress from the abuse scandal at that school. One of the two accused molesters, former teacher Mark Berndt, was arrested January 30, 2012, despite the fact that accusations against him date back for more than a decade.
It should be pointed out (since much of the public seems to forget or is simply ignorant of the fact) that principals are teachers’ supervisors and are ultimately responsible for all that happens at a school. When credible allegations of abuse are made, it is the principals’ responsibility (not the unions’) to follow up and report them to the appropriate authorities. And when disciplinary actions are initiated against a teacher, it is the union’s responsibility to defend the teacher’s due process rights, since not all abuse allegations are credible or valid. Yet when it is clear that a teacher is guilty of gross abuse (e.g., molestation, violence), there is little the union can do to protect that teacher’s job, nor is there any reason why it should want to.