Critics charge AB 375 doesn't really protect students

Critics charge AB 375 doesn't really protect students

SACRAMENTO –The Legislature still is working on teacher-discipline legislation. AB375 is by Assemblywoman Joan Buchanan, D-Alamo. It passed the Senate Education Committee Tuesday and is being heard Wednesday in the Senate Appropriations Committee.education-pic1

Prior to Tuesday’s hearing, all of the stakeholders had been led to believe the bill, which was thought dead in July, was on hold until next year.

But AB375 received major amendments late on the late night Sept. 6. The amendments appeared to come out of nowhere — until it became evident during Tuesday’s hearing the amendments were driven in on a teachers union bus.

In its new form, it now looks as though AB375 could make it harder, not easier, to dismiss bad teachers. It would preserve the current three-person Commission on Professional Competence that judges teacher-misconduct cases. It would have imposed a seven-month time limit for the completion of a teacher dismissal hearing, but the 7-month “cliff”was taken out of the bill in the last set of amendments negotiated with Liu. So now the bill allows proceedings to go on indefinitely…which isn't any better than current law either.

AB 375 could force districts to settle with bad teachers, or re-file charges — meaning child-victims could be asked to relive their abuse in further testimony.

And to shorten the process, the bill would limit the discovery process for evidence.

Other provisions would limit a district’s ability to amend charges when new evidence is discovered, and provide ample opportunities for defense counsel to delay.

Critics contend that AB375 also overlooks major problems with the dismissal process that lead to costly delays.

Teacher dismissal bill?

AB375 was shaped as a teacher dismissal bill as a response to the legal technicalities and delays surrounding the 2011 Miramonte Elementary School teacher abuse case in Los Angeles. Teacher Mark Berndt, 61, was charged with 23 felony counts of molestation and lewd conduct with students. The Los Angeles Unified School District agreed to a $30-million settlement. Parents accused the district of not doing enough to protect students from Berndt even after filing many complaints about inappropriate conduct in his classroom.

But this bill would not have helped LAUSD dismiss Berndt, and could have made the procedure even more complicated and difficult for the children.

School administrators oppose AB375 because is does not include sufficient protections to ensure that children are safe from predators in their classrooms. The odd incentives created by this bill could leave egregious offenders in classrooms for months, even after misconduct is reported, because the bill does not require school districts to notify the police if they have evidence of crimes perpetrated by a teacher against a child.

AB375 does not require the Commission on Teacher Credentialing to continue investigating allegations of misconduct if the school district settles with the teacher. This could allow teachers who are actually guilty of sex offenses to retain their licenses and continue to be in classrooms.

Principals and other school administrators joined school reformers in showing up in force at the hearing to oppose AB375. Among their key suggestions, administrators want school districts to have more discretion dismissing bad teachers, rather than waiting for the Commission on Professional Competence or an Administrative Law Judge to rule.

AB375 was introduced earlier this year after similar legislation by Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Pacoima, was defeated in 2012 under pressure by the California Teachers Association and California Federation of Teachers. Padilla's bill would have given school administrators more authority to fire teachers accused of sexual, drug-related or violent acts with students.

Protecting children — or teachers' jobs?

In the education reform movement, some lawmakers have been trying for years to pass a bill to expedite the lengthy teacher dismissal process and reduce the excessive cost.

But many education reformers don’t believe the bill goes far enough to allow schools to get rid of the increasing numbers of sexually abusive school employees.

“School leaders have an obligation to pull bad teachers out,” Bill Lucia of Edvoice told me after the hearing. Edvoice is an educational nonprofit organization dedicated to improving public schools in California.

Lucia explained “beyond a reasonable doubt” does not belong as the standard in schools. “Think about the young children — the classrooms full of young children, and their parents who are horrified,” Lucia said, speaking about schools which are unable to immediately oust abusive teachers. Such teachers often remain in the classroom.

The other flaw Lucia said he found in AB375 is that teachers who commit egregious moral violations are lumped into the same dismissal process as lousy teachers who fail to teach students to read. “This is, at best, an experiment,” Lucia said.

“[Mandatory reporting] is crucial to the process in terms of protecting children,” Buchanan said during the hearing. “This bill is strictly about what happens when you have an employment dispute and the employee disagrees with the dismissal charges.”

“It's disappointing that, by Assemblywoman Buchanan's own admission, AB375 isn't designed to protect California's kids,” said Jessica Ng with Students First, a grassroots education reform organization. “Not only does it fail to include sufficient protections to keep kids safe from predators in their classrooms, but it also makes it harder for districts to dismiss teachers who are accused of abuse against their students. California's kids don't need a teacher dismissal bill; they need a child safety and protection bill.”

Union-think

Critics charge the first clue the bill is not real reform was the alliance of support between the California Teachers Association and the California Federation of Teachers at the hearing.

At the hearing Tuesday, the CTA said it supported Buchanan’s bill because it leaves the final dismissal decision in the hands of the Commission on Professional Competence, made up of two fellow teachers and an administrative law judge.

“Administrators have allowed bad behavior,” said Sen. Norma Torres, D-Chino, repeating the position of the CTA and CFT. “Let’s not punish teachers for bad management.” She is a member of the Senate Education Committee.

Members of the committee, including the Committee Chairwoman, Sen. Carol Liu, voted to pass the bill, even after saying it was incomplete, and “not perfect.” Liu was the threshold vote, and could have made sure the bill stayed in the committee for further work.

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