Krista Kennell/AFP/Getty Images
Parents and children protest outside Miramonte Elementary School in Los Angeles, California, February 6, 2012.
A bill that would have made it easier to fire a teacher accused of sexually abusing a student died in the California Assembly Education Committee this evening on what one L.A. educator called a "remarkably tragic day for students," after fierce opposition from the California Teachers Association.
The failure of SB1530, sponsored by Democratic state Sen. Alex Padilla of Pacoima, ends all three attempts at similar reform this legislative session introduced after a spate of sexual misconduct cases in the Los Angeles Unified School District.
The bill would have given school boards the last word in firing teachers accused of "serious and egregious misconduct" — defined as offenses involving drugs or sexual conduct or violence toward children.
In these instances, what had been decided by a three-person panel called the Commission on Professional Competence would have become an "advisory" decision by an administrative law judge. Evidence more than four years old could have been used in the investigation and during proceedings for such a case.
LAUSD Superintendent John Deasy said he was "absolutely disgusted" by the bill's death.
"My goodness if we can't get past this it does not bode well, at least for a decent process for teacher quality, in terms of, can you actually teach biology," Deasy said. "...You beat a kid, you smack him in the head, you smoke marijuana with a kid, or you rape a kid, and we can’t seem to fire a teacher expeditiously on that?"
On Wednesday evening, Padilla said he was "dumbfounded" by the outcome.
Only the committee's chair, Democratic state Assemblywoman Julia Brownley of Oak Park, and Republicans voted in favor of the bill. That brought the vote to five in favor of the bill on the 11-member committee — one short of the needed majority.
Democratic Assemblyman Tom Ammiano of San Francisco and Democratic Assemblywoman Joan Buchanan of Sacramento both voted no; all the other Democrats on the committee abstained.
Padilla, who himself was a student at Telfair Elementary School, where a teacher was arrested for sexual misconduct with students earlier this year, said he would try to reintroduce the bill in the next session if there is no way to bring it back sooner.
"I’m not giving this up," Padilla said. "...I find it difficult to understand why anyone would oppose such a measure to protect children in our schools."
The outcome of the more than hour-long afternoon hearing came hours after discussion ended, and final votes were tallied at about 8 p.m. Wednesday.
Deasy has been following the proceedings closely and testified in its favor before. He called the outcome "shameful" and said it was a "remarkably tragic day for students." Deasy said the CTA had been rallying people to kill this bill for weeks.
"Then I guess then the situation is only about adults' rights and not kids' rights," Deasy said. "I don't really know how someone can stand up square and say we actually work for and care about kids, when the idea is we won't even protect them from sexual predators. I don't know how we move from that position to even teacher quality. It's kind of a joke."
The bill was brought to legislators after multiple sexual abuse cases in L.A. Unified earlier this year. In one case that district officials pointed to as a symbol for necessary change, Miramonte Elementary School teacher Mark Berndt, charged with 23 counts of lewd conduct on children, was involved in an appeals process that dragged on for months. LAUSD ultimately paid Berndt $40,000 to settle and end the dismissal process to get him out of the classroom.
“I’ve got so many people asking how can you settle $40,000 with this teacher,” said LAUSD school board President Monica Garcia. “...It is the process that forces the school district to settle in a legal way the dismissal of this person.”
Padilla worked with CTA officials to narrow the bill in the Senate Education Committee so that immediate suspension would only be allowed for "serious and egregious misconduct." And so that teachers would also be given an opportunity to present their written or oral case to the school board before a final determination, among other changes. The bill passed out of committee and received overwhelming bipartisan support on the Senate floor.
"This bill is not about how do you dismiss a teacher if the lesson plan aren’t ready or if they’ve shown up tardy a few too many times," Padilla told lawmakers Wednesday. "This bill has nothing to do with teacher evaluation. This bill is narrow, to sex, drugs, or violence against children."
But Padilla's bill did not receive a warm welcome from many of the Assembly Education Commitee's members.
“I think there are areas of this bill where we’re really being, what I’d say is, intellectually dishonest," Buchanan said. "Because there is nothing in this bill that would have prevented the situation in Miramonte from happening. If we think we’re providing additional protections by passing this bill, we’re not."
Buchanan agreed that changes needed to occur to perhaps speed the process, but only after some more thought. "I don’t think your bill is the right bill," Buchanan said. "I think we need time to sit down and get it right, and I don’t think this is right."
Ammiano, who was surprised and annoyed to find a San Francisco Unified School District representative supporting the bill, said it seemed "an unfinished project." He said he was willing to work toward a better version of the bill.
"I don’t think we have the clarity yet," Ammiano said. "I think we have the intent, I think we have the intelligence and the deliberation."
Republican state Assemblywoman Dr. Linda Halderman of Fresno said she had recently dealt with a situation in the Central Valley in which a child was molested and that the issue for her was ultimately about such children.
"I have a hard time putting anything above the welfare of that child, the damage that’s been done may be irreparable," Halderman said. "...In surgery we have a saying let not perfect be the enemy of good. This isn’t a perfect bill, but I think it’s a good bill, and I hope it moves forward."
Along with administrators from San Francisco Unified and Fresno Unified school districts, Oakley Union Elementary School District Superintendent Rick Rogers testified in support of the change to dismissal proceedings.
"Let’s be clear, this bill is not about removing a poor teacher from a classroom," Rogers said. "This bill is about removing a very creepy person from a classroom and away from our children."
CTA officials and other labor and union officials as well as about a dozen teachers spoke against the bill. They spent the morning knocking on lawmakers' doors to urge them to vote against the bill. They argued that the bill would undermine due process rights for teachers.
United Teachers Los Angeles President Warren Fletcher testified Wednesday and argued that problems at LAUSD were "built on LAUSD failing to discharge its duties under the current scheme of the law."
Fletcher also said that giving the school board the final word on dismissals would politicize the decisions of teacher dismissal instead of leaving it to a "fact-finding panel." He criticized Padilla's bill for removing teachers from the panel deciding a case.
"Removing the teacher representation on a professional competence panel means removing the competence and it also means removing the context,” Fletcher said.
But Deasy disagreed: "This is not about competence whatsoever, this is about criminal behavior. Competence is about whether you can teach algebra, whether someone can multiply binominals, we didn't go anywhere near that. This is about whether you shouldn't rape a child."
L.A. Unified will now have to "treat every single solitary suspicion as grave because we were unable to have a more finer differentiation in terms of misconduct," Deasy said. "And we will stand resolute and absolute in protecting students' rights from any suspicions of sexual abuse, violence or drug use with adults."
School board member Nury Martinez was very frustrated and disappointed by the lack of support for the bill after spending Tuesday and Wednesday in Sacramento trying to gain committee members' support. A mother of a three-year old, Martinez said this was, for her, a "mother's fight." She pointed to the multiple recent cases of sex abuse in the news.
"This is an epidemic, this is an outrage," Martinez said. "Across the country we are seeing these cases. [Jerry] Sandusky is, just, you’re talking about 20 to 30 year old men that horrible things were committed against them. Now we’re talking about 7 or 8 year olds. I don’t understand why we can’t find anyone in Sacramento to stand up for kids."