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Audit: LA Unified schools 'could do more' to improve handling of child abuse reports

Miramonte Elementary School

Grant Slater/KPCC

L.A. Unified "could do more to improve its handling of child abuse allegations" and has often failed to follow state law, according to an audit released Thursday. The audit was requested after two teachers at Miramonte Elementary School were arrested for lewd acts on children.

L.A. Unified has often failed to follow state law in its child abuse reporting procedures, delaying some notifications to the agency for teacher credentialing by up to three years, according to a state audit on how the district handles child abuse released Thursday.

Here are the key findings in the 62-page report and the district's six-page response, both of which can be read below:

1) The district didn't always properly notify the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing. After a review of claims going back to July 1, 2008, the district submitted 604 cases to the commission in three months. Of these cases, at least 144 were submitted a year or more late; 31 more than three years late.

  • Of the 31 late cases, 23 involved misconduct against a student. According to the report, in one case a teacher's sexual relationship with a student was reported 3.5 years late; "thus, the commission could not promptly determine whether to revoke the teacher's certificate and prevent the teacher from working in other school districts."

2) The district "generally followed state law" for reporting alleged child abuse but didn't always act in a timely manner during the investigation process. According to the audit, "one case did not move forward for almost 14 of the more than 18 months the case was open."

3) Delays in disciplining or dismissing some district employees were not adequately explained, including —

"...an eight-month delay between the time that the district's investigations unit released a report concerning a child abuse allegation and the date on which the school's principal issued a memo to the employee about the incident, with no indication of anything occurring in the interim. According to district staff, the principal struggled to write the memo."

4) The district has housed more than 700 employees — relocating the person away from the school and contact with children — since the creation of the database tracking this in 2008. While the case is being investigated, the district continues paying the employee. This can last one day or can last years. As of mid-September 2012, according to the report, the district paid $3 million in salaries to 20 employees it had housed, including one housed for more than four years.

  • Of 111 teachers housed in 2011, the average time housed was more than 200 days at a cost of $4.2 milion in salaries.

The report found that because the process of dismissing a teacher can take years and be expensive, the district may be more likely to enter into a settlement agreement. In the case of Miramonte Elementary School teacher Mark Berndt accused of lewd acts on children, the district paid $40,000 to settle the case.

  • Of 61 settlements reviewed during the audit, 47 involved inappropriate employee conduct with a student with payouts totaling more than $2 million.

L.A. Unified doesn't have a single division that tracks settlements districtwide, which makes it hard to determine the full cost of these settlements to the district and the type of misconduct involved. The audit recommended the district set this up in order to "analyze patterns and trends associated with providing settlements, which could help streamline and make the process less expensive."

The audit report recommends the district follow state law for reporting cases to the commission in a timely manner — reports must be made to the commission within 30 days when a teacher's employment status changes as a result of alleged misconduct.

After KPCC reported in February that L.A. Unified failed to notify the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing for more than six months of Berndt's suspension without pay, the district said it would go back and report (or re-report) every case of alleged misconduct over the last three school years as part of an internal investigation.

The audit also noted that there is no statewide mechanism to communicate among school districts when a classified employee is dismissed, resigns, or agrees to a settlement during the course of an investigation involving misconduct with students.

The audit recommends the legislature create a way to monitor classified employees who leave districts because of alleged misconduct that's similar to the commission for teachers, so that "school districts throughout the State could be notified before hiring" them.

The audit also recommends the district "increase its oversight of open allegations of employee abuse" against students so that investigations are timely and discipline is prompt.

The request for the performance audit was put forward by Democratic state Assemblyman Ricardo Lara of Bell Gardens in March after two teachers from Miramonte Elementary School were accused of lewd acts on children. L.A. Unified fielded a spate of increased reports after the arrests.

L.A. Unified agreed to the recommendations in the audit and outlined steps it's taken or plans to take to improve their procedures, the report states.

"The district feels like they really have addressed basically what was already identified in the audit, everything from the legislative agenda they pursued this year with Sen. Padilla, to streamline the removal of teachers, to improving notification guidelines and implementing the 72-hour [parent] notification policy," said Sean Rossall, a spokesman out of the L.A. Unified Office of the General Counsel.

Superintendent John Deasy said he was "pleased with the audit as it reflects all we have done to improve." He said he strongly supports the legislative recommendations.

LAUSD audit responses

LA Unified Report

This story has been updated.

Tami Abdollah can be reached via email and on Twitter (@latams).

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