LAUSD 'jails' fill with teachers as misconduct complaints rise
Posted: 11/27/2012 07:51:59 PM PSTUpdated: 11/27/2012 08:00:16 PM PST
They call it "teacher jail" - the administrative offices where nearly 300 Los Angeles Unified educators accused of misconduct spend months on end reading, blogging or texting.The cost is enormous: $1.4 million a month in salaries while district and law-enforcement investigations proceed, and $865,000 to hire substitutes to fulfill their classroom duties.Los Angeles Unified officials insist the cost is worth it - the price the district has to pay for years of downplaying or ignoring suspected abuse. That practice exploded into a major scandal in February with revelations of longtime patterns of misconduct by teachers at Telfair Elementary in Pacoima and Miramonte Elementary in South L.A.Now, under a new zero-tolerance policy, scores of educators accused of misconduct have been pulled from classrooms and are facing dismissal. The number of housed teachers has more than doubled in the last 18 months.Even grabbing a student's arm or looking down a girl's blouse triggers a full-scale investigation, with the district moving aggressively to fire those found to have endangered the well-being of students."You touch a child inappropriately, expect to lose your job," said David Holmquist, the district's general counsel. "We have zero tolerance for inappropriate touching and that probably hasn't always been the case, to this degree."That total of 300 includes 50 teachers who have been placed on unpaid status as the district moves to fire them. Officials say there also are "a handful" of teachers who have successfully appealed their dismissals and are collecting their salary, but who officials do not want back in the classroom.The district's handling of misconduct complaints is the subject of a report set for release Thursday by the California State Auditor's office. Requested by Assemblyman Ricardo Lara, D-South Gate, it is expected to look at the policies and procedures at the district and a sampling of cases at six schools.The audit is likely to address LAUSD's more aggressive approach to pulling educators from the classroom - so many, in fact, that housed teachers are split into morning and afternoon shifts, with the balance of their "workday" spent at home.Teachers union leaders say they certainly want to rid their ranks of abusers, but they believe the district is overreacting to the scandal and wasting precious resources by failing to differentiate between an inadvertent touch and predatory behavior."The district is diverting important resources away from investigating credible allegations of potential real misconduct and instead is abusing the system to smear the reputations of teachers," said Warren
Fletcher, president of United Teachers Los Angeles.
"LAUSD is using the process to get rid of teachers they don't like or don't want by launching misconduct investigations against them when there's no reasonable belief on anyone's part that any real misconduct occurred."Superintendent John Deasy disputes that contention, as well as claims by some housed teachers that he is conducting a "witch hunt" to thin the ranks of high-paid employees nearing retirement, when they'd become eligible for lifetime health benefits."That is completely inaccurate," he said. "What we want is for students to be safe. A witch hunt would be if we were going after teachers. But the complaints come to us, and we're responding by ensuring that policies are enforced."LAUSD Human Resources chief Vivian Ekchian said it's not only the district that has changed its outlook in the wake of the sex-abuse scandal."Students have been educated and empowered, and they recognize harassment when they see it and they know they can tell someone," said Ekchian, a former teacher and principal. "Parents have expectations for high-performing teachers who are fit to teach with moral conduct that can be defended."Under the updated guidelines for housing a teacher, employees can be pulled from the classroom and reassigned if officials receive a "credible allegation" of misconduct that warrants an investigation.But some educators reassigned to administrative
offices - which they've dubbed "teacher jail" or "rubber rooms" - say they've been ensnared in a system that denies them due process and is weighted heavily against them.
Employees complain that they have to sign in and out, even to use the restroom, and that they're not allowed to visit with their fellow teachers in adjoining cubicles.While the district policy says teachers should be required to perform "duties within their job classification," housed teachers say there's no real work for them to do, so they spend their time reading, blogging or talking.What's most upsetting, they say, is that they're not told of the specific allegations against them until the investigation is completed, to prevent them from contacting students or parents. That leaves the teachers in emotional limbo, compounded by the fear that they'll eventually be fired."I'm in tears every day that I'm here," said one arts teacher, adding that she's suffered from headaches, vomiting and hives in the three months that she's been housed.The district tries to wrap up its probe in 120 working days - that's six months - although complaints involving physical or sexual abuse may take longer because police must first determine whether to pursue criminal charges."The number of calls skyrocketed in the weeks and months after Miramonte," said Juan Perez, one of three detectives assigned to the Los Angeles Police Department's Sexually Exploited Child Unit."We're again experiencing a significant increase in the number of calls, especially those like, `The teacher made me feel uncomfortable,' or `The teacher brushed my hair or touched my leg.'"Some we can solve in a day or two, the others may take us months. It depends on the availability of the victims and the complexity of the allegations," Perez said.Once police complete their investigation, administrators can interview students, parents and co-workers to determine whether the employee may have violated professional guidelines, such as the state Education Code or the district's Code of Conduct with Students.According to the policy, the housed employee is interviewed last.Some housed teachers say, however, that officials had completed their report and decided to take disciplinary action by the time they were finally asked for their version of events.Randy Traweek is a sixth-grade teacher at the Westside Global Awareness Magnet, and a John Hopkins Teaching Fellow whose classroom was once featured on "Good Morning America."He's been housed since April, when his principal heard rumors circulating around campus that Traweek had touched the buttocks of a female student in October 2011. The LAPD investigated and found no criminal wrongdoing.The district, however, asked Traweek's students whether anyone had ever made them feel uncomfortable. Officials are pursuing a case against the 28-year LAUSD veteran for touching the girl, as well as one boy who said Traweek had hugged him and another who said the teacher had smacked him twice on the rear end.Traweek is fighting the allegations, saying the boy he reportedly hugged wasn't yet assigned to his class at the time of the alleged incident, and the incident with the other boy wasn't corroborated by any witnesses."Oh, my God, I would never hurt these kids - never, never, never," Traweek said. "I just love teaching kids. It's my passion in life."Despite the district's hard-line stance against misconduct, officials say they will return a teacher to the classroom if evidence shows that no wrongdoing occurred.That's what happened Tuesday, when a veteran teacher was told she can return on Wednesday to her San Fernando Valley elementary school after being housed for 10 weeks."I am so beyond excited," said the teacher, who asked not to be identified.According to the teacher, she'd accidentally "tapped" a student's stomach while trying to get him to stop squirming as he stood next to her desk. The boy began crying, so the teacher took him to the office, alerted the principal and contacted the boy's mother, who thanked her for the call."It made me really nervous," the teacher said. "Post-Miramonte, it's a new game."Three days later, the boy's father filed a complaint and the teacher was pulled from the classroom. Parents at the school rallied around her, posting an online petition, and printing T-shirts with her name."I know the teacher and know she wouldn't hurt a kid," said mom Julia Bricklin."I don't begrudge another parent looking out for their own child, but we need a better process. We need to be able to put in a system that will punish them immediately or return them to the classroom if they're found to be innocent."If we conservatively say that many teachers deserve to be removed, then there's a number who don't," Bricklin said. "The process isn't fair and it's cruel and it's not fair to the children."Officials say the process may be time-consuming and frustrating, but it's the best they can do as they try to balance student safety and teachers' rights.Despite the pending audit and the continued outrage over the sex-abuse scandal, Ekchian said LAUSD's teaching corps is one to be proud of."The majority of our employees do an outstanding job," she said. "When we discuss our housed employees, it is a very small number who are being reassigned so investigations can occur for the safety of our students."