California’s AB375 would do precious little to protect school children from pedophiles.
The impulse to take action to remove pedophiles from California’s classrooms came about as a result of Miramonte Elementary School teacher Mark Berndt having slid through the cracks after committing lewd acts against untold numbers of young children.
After Berndt’s arrest in Los Angeles in February 2012, Democrat state senator Alex Padilla wrote SB1530, a bill which would have streamlined the labyrinthine “dismissal statutes” that require districts to navigate a seemingly endless maze of hearings and appeals. Narrow in scope, the bill dealt only with claims deemed credible that a teacher abused a child sexually or with drugs or violence.
Existing law lets local school boards immediately suspend a teacher under “specified conditions, including immoral conduct.” Padilla’s bill simply would have added language allowing a school board to suspend an employee for “serious or egregious unprofessional conduct.”
But early in the summer of 2012, the California State Assembly Education Committee voted down the proposed law, dutifully satisfying the teachers unions, which had lobbied fiercely to kill it. United Teachers of Los Angeles president Warren Fletcher claimed that SB1530 “solves nothing, places teachers at unfair risk, and diverts attention from the real accountability issues at LAUSD.” (What “real accountability issues” are more important?)
The bill’s death caused a great furor in the California press, with the unions and the education committee’s nay-voters and gutless abstainers bearing the brunt of the criticism. The San Francisco Chronicle wrote that “the influence of the California Teachers Association was rarely more apparent – or more sickening – than in the defeat of SB1530.” (Emphasis added.)
Then, in an attempt to “do something” in February of this year, one of the two legislators who voted no on Padilla’s bill, Assembly Education Committee chairwoman Joan Buchanan, submitted AB375, a similar but watered down version of SB1530. Ominously, it had the backing of the teachers unions and looked poised to pass in July, but it too failed to garner enough votes. However, Senate Education Committee Chair Carol Liu who had supplied the deciding vote then granted a “reconsideration” of the bill, meaning that it could come back to life in a different form.
So earlier this month the bill reemerged, was quickly passed by both legislative houses and now awaits Governor Jerry Brown’s signature. Summing up the teachers unions’ take on this latest iteration, California Teachers Association president Dean Vogel said, “Passage of AB375 addresses our concerns of keeping students safe, safeguarding the integrity of the profession, and protecting the rights of educators.”
But AB375 doesn’t come close to fulfilling its promise to keep children safe.
While there are admittedly a couple of good things about the bill – most agree that AB375 has two important adjustments: eliminating a summer break moratorium on teacher suspensions and ending the statute of limitations on serious allegations – it is seriously flawed, and may give kids even less protection from predatory teachers than they have now.
Former state senator Gloria Romero, who has written extensively against the bill (starting with its earliest version), says,
AB375 mandates a fixed timeline of seven months for any discipline case to be concluded. That sounds nice on paper, but AB375 opponents testified to Liu’s committee, that the time limit becomes tantamount to a “get out of jail free card,” giving teachers facing firing every incentive to delay their case past seven months. (Emphasis added.)
In other words, limiting the investigation and possible legal action to a window of seven months sounds like it would expedite matters, but creates bigger problems in doing so. What happens if it looks like a decision can’t be reached during that time? Could a teacher force the district to settle?
As the California School Board Association (CSBA) points out,
AB375 would enable a certificated employee to challenge a suspension while he or she awaits the dismissal hearing. This new procedure would add time and costs to the hearing process … and make it more difficult to meet the 7-month deadline for completion. (Emphasis added.)
Also problematic is the bill’s retention of the “Commission on Professional Competence.” This panel is made up of an administrative law judge and two teachers, giving the teachers unions a large role in CPC decisions. SB1530 would have eliminated the CPC and given school boards the final say. This was an important reform that the unions could not live with.
The CSBA adds,
AB375 would allow any party to object to the qualifications of members of the Commission on Professional Competence (CPC). Permitting the parties to object to the qualifications of a panel member at the time of selection adds cost and delay to the process without a benefit. At the time of selection, neither party is familiar with the qualifications of the panel members. Filing motions will simply result in delays that will make it harder to meet the 7-month time limit for completion of the hearing.
AB375 has other, even bigger problems. For example, it allows a district to provide testimony of only four abused children. Why this arbitrarily low number? What about the voices of the 5th, 6th and 7th children? Why in good conscience could anyone disallow their testimony? (There were 23 counts against Mark Berndt.)
Also, as education writer RiShawn Biddle points out, the bill stifles districts by preventing them from amending a dismissal complaint to include new charges and evidence of abuse that often come out after a teacher’s acts become publicly known.
This means that a district that learns of even more-heinous criminal behavior during the period the teacher had served cannot bring up information that is relevant to the case itself.
EdVoice’s Bill Lucia, who has been a staunch foe of AB375, identifies yet another flaw in the new bill – that unlike SB1530, which only dealt with teacher abuse via “sex, drugs or violence,” this is a catch-all bill. “… teachers who commit egregious moral violations are lumped into the same dismissal process as lousy teachers who fail to teach students to read.” Instead, Lucia supports a two-tiered system that streamlines the process to remove criminal teachers from the classroom.
StudentsFirst’s Jessica Ng puts the troubling bill into perspective:
It’s disappointing that, by Assemblywoman Buchanan’s own admission, AB375 isn’t designed to protect California’s kids … California’s kids don’t need a teacher dismissal bill; they need a child safety and protection bill.
With the bill heavily favoring teachers at the expense of kids, it is no wonder that the California Teachers Association and the California Federation of Teachers – California’s duopoly – are backing AB375. It is a bleak reminder of who really pulls the strings in the Golden State. The pointed headline of a recent editorial in U-T San Diego said it all: “Fixing California: Teachers unions demonstrate again who controls Sacramento.”
The Sacramento Bee’s Dan Walters echoed this sentiment, writing, “If the unions can have their way on child abuse, they can have their way on anything in the current Legislature.”
One final and almost comical point. As a sop to the unions, there is a tiny piece of AB 375 that has flown under the radar. (H/T Hillel Aron) It states that, “knowing membership of the Communist Party” shall be removed “from the list of reasons a permanent school employee can be dismissed or suspended.”
Yeah, damn the kids, let’s protect pedophiles and Communists!
This crass and immoral politicking is truly vile. The governor must kill this abominable bill.
Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues.