A state audit praises Los Angeles Unified for improving its handling of teacher misconduct cases, but supporters of Rafe Esquith, right, remain critical. Esquith, a widely admired instructor shown in 2005, was pulled from class in April. (Anne Cusack / Los Angeles Times)
4 Sept 2015 :: Judging by the chorus of critics, the Los Angeles Unified School District does almost nothing right when it comes to allegations of teacher misconduct. And things never seem to improve.
One voice in that chorus, the state auditor, offered a different view in a just-released analysis: L.A. Unified is doing better, the auditor concluded. It’s even doing well.
The nation’s second-largest school system made “dramatic improvements” in conducting faster investigations, properly notified the state regarding allegations against teachers and managed legal claims and litigation more effectively, auditors wrote.
“The district is pleased with the state auditor’s findings,” said general counsel David Holmquist. “This district remains committed to the safety of all students.”
One area of improvement was in notifying the state of misconduct allegations. This notice allows the state to consider suspending or revoking a teaching credential and to provide notice to other potential employers of an instructor.
State law requires school districts to report within 30 days any case of a teacher’s change in employment status, such as a dismissal or other termination, as a result of an allegation of misconduct. Rules also require the district to notify the state within 10 days when a district puts a teacher on a mandatory leave of absence because of criminal charges or allegations of sexual misconduct involving a minor.
According to a 2012 audit, L.A. Unified failed to provide proper notice to the state in at least 144 of 429 cases reviewed. The most recent review, which looked at instances of possible employee misconduct from April 2013 to May of this year, found the district handled 89 of 92 necessary reports without a mistake. The district also sharply reduced the number of unnecessary reports filed with the state.
In addition, a sample of cases reviewed also showed that L.A. Unified had reduced the time needed to conduct an investigation by half — to about five months.
The praise is far from unanimous, however.
Continuing critics include attorneys representing teacher Rafe Esquith, who was pulled from Hobart Boulevard Elementary School in April, as part of an investigation that began over a brief classroom literary reference to nudity.
Esquith, who has sued L.A. Unified, remains out of class and the probe has broadened to include a review of his education-related nonprofit and “serious allegations of highly inappropriate conduct involving touching of minors before and during Mr. Esquith's time at the School District," according to a letter from the district to Esquith’s attorneys.
Esquith supporters have called the district probe a farce or worse and likened the school system to the mafia.
At another extreme, attorneys representing alleged victims of former Miramonte Elementary teacher Mark Berndt have repeatedly questioned whether the district is doing enough to keep students safe from potential predators.
Just this week, the district agreed to pay $4.5 million more to former Miramonte students, bringing settlements in those cases to nearly $175 million.
“Any improvement is welcome,” said attorney John Manly, who represented some Miramonte families. But the district still makes it difficult to unearth information about accused teachers and the number of students making allegations, he said.
Manly cited the district’s ongoing attempt to limit its liability in the case of a 14-year-old abused by a teacher.
“That position is repugnant and brings into sharp focus their institutional hypocrisy when it comes to really protecting kids from predators,” Manly said.
Holmquist said the key issue in that case was not whether the girl bore any responsibility for her abuse, but whether the district knew or should have known that the teacher was abusing her.
Report 2015-510 Summary - September 2015
California State Auditor - Report 2015-510 Summary - September 2015 http://bit.ly/1EFtnio
Follow-Up—Los Angeles Unified School District:
It Has Improved Its Investigations and Reporting of Misconduct Allegations Against District Employees
Our follow-up audit of the Los Angeles Unified School District (district) revealed that the district implemented our previous recommendations related to the reporting, investigation, and settlement of allegations of misconduct by district employees.
- It properly notified the Commission on Teacher Credentialing when necessary and within the time frames outlined in state law in 89 of the 92 instances we reviewed.
- It made dramatic improvements in the time it takes to investigate an allegation and is now completing its investigations within an average of five months, or 50 percent faster than the amount of time that the district took for investigations that we analyzed during the 2012 audit.
- It revised its procedures and repaired the flawed data in its settlement-tracking mechanism system that we identified during the course of our fieldwork.
Results in Brief
Our follow-up audit found that the Los Angeles Unified School District (district) has fully implemented our previous recommendations related to the reporting, investigation, and settlement of allegations of misconduct by district employees. In November 2012 we issued a report titled Los Angeles Unified School District: It Could Do More to Improve Its Handling of Child Abuse Allegations, Report 2012-103 (2012 audit), in which we reported that the district often failed to properly notify the Commission on Teacher Credentialing (commission) when required to do so, such as in instances when employees resigned or entered into settlement agreements while allegations of misconduct were pending. We recommended that the district adhere to state requirements for reporting cases to the commission. Our follow-up audit found that the district failed to send notifications to the commission when necessary—and within the time frames outlined in state law—in only three of the 92 instances we reviewed. In contrast, our prior report showed that in at least 144 of 429 cases, the district failed to notify the commission in a timely manner. In making this improvement, the district has fully implemented our recommendation to report to the commission, as required.
Our 2012 audit also found that the district did not promptly investigate some allegations in a timely manner, and we recommended that the district increase its oversight of open allegations. In response, the district created the Student Safety Investigation Team (investigation team) in its central office to investigate all allegations of abuse and sexual misconduct and to assist administrators with conducting other types of investigations thoroughly and in a timely manner. Our 2015 review of the district's new policies and procedures and of 12 allegations handled by the investigation team showed that the district has made improvements in the time it takes to investigate an allegation. The district is now completing its investigations within an average of five months, or 50 percent faster than the amount of time that the district took for investigations that we analyzed during the 2012 audit. For the 12 cases we reviewed in 2015, the investigation team complied with the district's policy of completing investigations within 120 working days, or approximately six months.
Finally, the district has designated one division to track settlements entered into with employees, in accordance with our 2012 audit recommendation. Although we initially identified some deficiencies in its settlement-tracking mechanism, however, the district revised its procedures and repaired the flawed data in its system during the course of our fieldwork. Upon further review, the settlement data were reasonably accurate, given their intended purpose, and we believe that the revised procedures should help the district ensure that the data will remain reliable in the future. In general, by fully implementing our recommendations, the district has improved its ability to investigate and report employees alleged to have committed misconduct, and it has also better tracked and monitored settlements with some of those same employees.
We met with the district's management on July 22, 2015, to discuss our report's conclusions and provided a copy of the draft report on August 6, 2015. Since our report had no findings or recommendations, we did not ask that the district formally respond to the audit. The district did provide some verbal comments that were technical in nature and we considered those comments when preparing this public report.