Outside review on molestation episode gets bad marks
all by Howard Blume, Times Staff Writer
08:57 AM PT, Nov 3 2008 - A recently filed lawsuit claims that senior Los Angeles school officials knew that an assistant principal remained a molestation suspect when they assigned him to a Watts middle school last year.
The lawsuit contradicts assertions by senior LAUSD administrators. They have denied knowing that police believed that Steve Thomas Rooney, 40, posed a risk to other girls. These administrators have contended that they thought Rooney had been cleared by police and by the central district offices.
Rooney quickly got into trouble after arriving at Markham Middle School in September 2007; he faces molestation-related charges involving two students from that school and two from a previous assignment. He has denied wrongdoing.
The new litigation, filed by Michael Hopwood -- a district employee who is also a former elected member of the Compton school board -- calls into question an internal report on the Rooney episode commissioned by the school district. The report, by the law firm Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman, is examined in today’s Times.
Markham Middle School report (Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman final report re: The Markham Investigation, dated June 2, 2008 plus Board Resolutions and Policy bulletins.)
The report by the law firm has been used by Supt. David L. Brewer to assert that no current district employee is directly to blame for sending Rooney to Markham. In particular, Brewer defended Carol Truscott, who heads one of the district's eight geographic areas.
In preparing the report, the law firm interviewed 28 people, but missed Hopwood, an operations coordinator under Truscott who has now come forward with explosive allegations in a lawsuit filed last month.
In his lawsuit, filed in Los Angeles Superior Court, Hopwood alleges job discrimination and retaliation for, among other things, protesting Truscott's decision to return Rooney to a school site.
Hopwood, an elected member of the Compton school board in the 1990s, contends that he met with Truscott and Anthony Armendariz, another operations coordinator, in the summer of 2007 to discuss the handling of Rooney. At the time, Rooney, an assistant principal at Fremont High in South Los Angeles, had been removed from contact with students because police were investigating both a gun-brandishing charge and possible sexual improprieties. But no sex charge was filed, and the gun charge was dropped because the girl at the center of the case wouldn’t testify against Rooney.
In the lawsuit, Hopwood alleges that he urged Truscott not to return Rooney to a campus, but that Truscott responded that “she would not have a ‘non-productive’ administrator.” Hopwood also charges that after police arrested Rooney for allegedly molesting two girls at Markham, Hopwood claims that Truscott warned him “that he must be loyal to her in the Rooney matter.”
Truscott could not be reached for comment on the lawsuit, but in the law firm’s report she denied knowing that police investigators continued to suspect that Rooney was a sexual predator. And in a statement to The Times, she said that “had the full law-enforcement details been shared with me, I would have acted differently. Anyone who knowingly puts children in danger should be fired.”
Hopwood and Armendariz declined to be interviewed.
-- Howard Blume
Outside review on molestation episode gets bad marks
08:55 AM PT, Nov 3 2008 -- A report into how a man suspected of sexual misconduct was returned to contact with students received mostly poor grades from those who reviewed it at The Times' request.
Former assistant principal Steve Thomas Rooney, 40, faces molestation-related charges involving four students — two from Markham Middle School in Watts and two from Foshay Learning Center in South Los Angeles, where Rooney had previously worked. He has denied wrongdoing.
After Rooney’s March arrest, the LAUSD hired an outside law firm -- Pillsbury, Winthrop, Shaw, Pittman -- to review Rooney’s path to Markham.
The report has been used as the basis for imposing no apparent substantial discipline on any current district employee. But the report has obvious shortcomings, said district and law enforcement sources. Some of these issues are outlined in a today's L.A. Times article, but there are others.
One is the range of interviews conducted by the law firm.
As an example, the law firm accepted the contention by members of the Employee Relations and the Staff Relations departments that they did not know Rooney was suspected of sexual misconduct. They said they knew only of a gun charge against Rooney and insisted that their contacts with police never mentioned anything else.
The law firm never verified the accounts of these departments with police, according to the list of interviews conducted.
Employee Relations was responsible for tracking criminal cases involving district employees. Staff Relations was responsible for advising officials regarding these employees once an investigation had concluded. Neither department raised concerns about Rooney being returned to contact with students.
In fact, if these L.A. Unified employees had contacted detectives or reviewed documentation related to the investigation, they could not have missed that the inquiry was primarily a sexual-misconduct investigation, law enforcement sources said.
Almost all sources spoke on the condition that their names would not be used. The district employees noted that they were unauthorized to speak. Some law enforcement sources also were not authorized, and they emphasized the importance of maintaining a good personal and departmental working relationship with the school system.
One person who commented was A.J. Duffy, head of United Teachers Los Angeles. He questioned why the gun charge by itself didn’t warrant an internal review. Rooney was originally arrested in February 2007 for allegedly brandishing a gun at the stepfather of a student.
“That’s an issue that should be taken with the greatest degree of seriousness,” Duffy said. “If they didn’t, that shows how bad they are at doing their jobs.”
Moreover, at least two Fremont teachers had complained about alleged outbursts of anger from Rooney on the job.
Others took issue with the report’s focus on former district Chief Operating Officer Dan Isaacs. The report criticized Isaacs for not telling everything he knew about the police investigation of Rooney in a brief memo Isaacs sent to the Board of Education, L.A. schools Supt. David L. Brewer and 11 other top officials.
Isaacs sent out the memo at the time of Rooney’s February 2007 arrest, and about five months before his own retirement. At that point, Rooney’s job status remained in limbo; he was being kept out of contact with students in a desk job at the local district office.
In a recent interview, Brewer named only Isaacs as a person deserving blame for the Rooney episode.
“You cannot lead and manage by memo,” said Brewer, who had a cool relationship with Isaacs. “The chief operating officer walks out of the door, and it was a single point of failure. He had the information and nobody else had it.”
One on-the-record defense of Isaacs and his memo came from Michael O’Sullivan, president of Associated Administrators of Los Angeles, which represents L.A. Unified administrators.
“The content of that memo was extraordinarily well done,” said O’Sullivan, who has hired Isaacs to work part-time for the association. “It does not give unnecessary information. It simply states the facts. It was the typical heads-up memo. And it went to everyone who should have it.”
Another matter that drew critical response was the report's handling of who, if anyone, was responsible for making sure Rooney was fit to return to a campus. The report ultimately faults no one directly, although it acknowledges district policy stipulating that the local district superintendent (Carol Truscott) and an employee's immediate supervisor were responsible for a follow-up probe. In this context, Truscott's underling Greg Braxton supervised Rooney after he was pulled from Fremont High in South Los Angeles. (Braxton has since become the principal at the new Roybal Learning Center.)
The relevant policy is laid out in Bulletin 3357, adopted in October 2006. It states that an employee’s administrator and the local district superintendent should conduct an internal investigation once a law enforcement inquiry or trial has ended with no conviction. That’s because such an employee may still deserve to be fired, face other discipline or pose a threat of some sort.
As described briefly in today’s Times article, the law firm’s report accepted Truscott’s and Braxton’s contention that they never saw the 2006 policy.
A couple of district sources, who were not directly involved in the Rooney case, insisted that they too were unaware of the 2006 policy. Others found that contention difficult to believe.
Still, administrators aren’t supposed to conduct probes that parallel or precede police investigations, because that can undermine police work, said former district general counsel Kevin Reed.
The problem, he added, was that some administrators took the admonition not to interfere with police matters too far. To clarify matters, the district adopted a sexual harassment policy in 2004.
Sexual harassment, as defined, includes inappropriate “conduct of a sexual nature.” And the policy stipulates that “as soon as the law-enforcement agency completes its investigation,” administrators are responsible for “conducting a prompt investigation into whether sexual harassment had occurred.”
Thus, anyone who missed the 2006 policy should at least have been aware of the 2004 sexual harassment policy.
Twice a year, administrators must certify in writing that they have reviewed the sexual harassment policy as well as rules pertaining to the reporting of child abuse.
One reason for the 2004 policy — and its repeated review — was to instill the notion that all employees must take personal responsibility for the safety of children. No one should assume that keeping children away from harm is someone else’s job.
But even with the 2004 policy, not everyone seemed to be getting the message. The 2006 policy was necessary, Reed said, because there was “an incomplete understanding” that once a criminal prosecution ceased, administrators must ensure that it’s appropriate to return an employee to contact with students.
In other words, Truscott and Braxton were perhaps far from alone in their mistaken understanding of how they should proceed.
In the wake of the Rooney incident, Brewer has centralized the management of employees under a cloud, an adjustment that Braxton commended.
“I am glad the district has instituted a policy for returning people to schools that involves a series of checks and screenings at the central district level,” Braxton wrote in an e-mail to The Times. “This is where many of us had always understood it to be.”
Similarly, Truscott noted: “As tragic as this is, it has resulted in stronger protections for the children.”
The new system may be improved as far as tracking and managing these cases, but it moves in a different direction than insisting on individual responsibility at all levels, which Reed was trying to accomplish.
-- Howard Blume