Thursday, December 6, 2012

Bill to Undermine Teacher Due Process Revived in California State Legislature

California state senator Alex Padilla (D-Pacoima) has reintroduced legislation that is supposed to speed up the dismissal of teachers for gross misconduct, the Los Angeles Times reported this week. The new legislation, SB 10, will be very similar to a failed bill advanced last year by Padilla. The text of the bill was not available as of Monday.

In the wake of LAUSD’s sex abuse scandal (see here, here and here), it is understandable that the public would want a more efficient and effective process for removing child molesters from the schools. However, the problems in LAUSD were not the result of ineffective disciplinary rules. Rather, the school district was asleep at the wheel, routinely ignoring parental complaints, losing personnel records, and not doing the necessary investigative work when it did respond to complaints. Several parents are currently suing the district for its incompetence in handling the Miramonte case.

According to an audit released last week, LAUSD frequently failed to report teacher misconduct to state Commission on Teacher Credentialing authorities and took too long to investigate abuse allegations. In one case, a principal took eight months to notify an employee after it had concluded its investigation. Overall, the audit found that LAUSD failed to promptly notify state authorities about 144 misconduct cases. Some of the cases were report as much as three years after the allegations were first made.

Padilla’s previous attempt at “improving” the disciplinary process would have done nothing to make school districts more accountable, more effective at record keeping or better at their internal investigations. It would, however, have significantly reduced due process for teachers, by taking the final disciplinary decisions away from an objective state body and placing them in the hands of local school districts, which are often biased against their own teachers and which have a strong stake in controlling public perception, even at the expense of teachers’ due process rights. LAUSD demonstrated this last year when it fired the entire staff at Miramonte Elementary, even though only two of its teachers had been accused of abuse.

The state audit concluded that the lengthy and expensive dismissal process for teachers in California contributes to districts making settlement agreements with them instead of fully investigating and disciplining them. This is because certificated employees (i.e., teachers) who appeal their dismissals are currently entitled to a hearing before the Commission of Professional Competence (CPC). One of the goals of the Padilla legislation is to reduce settlements by speeding up the dismissal process, in part by ending teachers’ rights to a hearing before the CPC.

While it is certainly desirable to get molesters out of the classroom as quickly as possible, the right to an appeal is a necessary due process right, as innocent teachers are sometimes arbitrarily or vindictively accused of misconduct by administrators, parents and students. Ending this right will do nothing to protect children, as districts already have the right, as well as the legal obligation, to immediately remove accused abusers from the classroom, even while investigations are pending. While the new legislation would do nothing to expedite the removal of molesters from the classroom, it would reduce the amount of time it takes from the end of the investigation until a teacher is dismissed, thereby saving districts money that would have been spent housing teachers in “rubber” rooms or paying them salaries during the appeals process.

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