Mark Berndt, a first-grade teacher at Miramonte Elementary School in the Los Angeles Unified School District, allegedly committed “lewd acts” against perhaps dozens of children over the course of a 31-year career. Berndt’s case exposed the tortuous legal process that makes it nearly impossible for schools to get rid of predatory teachers. It also brought to light the lengths to which teachers unions will go to defend their members, even those accused of horrific crimes.
Berndt is still awaiting trial on 23 counts. Last year, district officials agreed to pay him more than $40,000 to resign in lieu of exercising his “due process rights,” which could have dragged out his termination for months or possibly years—while he continued to collect a salary and accrue pension benefits—through a series of contractually mandated hearings and appeals. This past March, the district announced it would pay $30 million to the parents of 61 of Berndt’s former students.
A bill written supposedly to ease the process of removing from the classroom those teachers who have engaged in “immoral or unprofessional conduct” would have made matters much worse by giving teachers like Berndt even greater protections against dismissal. No surprise, the California Teachers Association (CTA) and California Federation of Teachers had endorsed Assembly Bill 375, which Gov. Jerry Brown (D) vetoed in October. The governor said the bill would have made the dismissal process “too rigid and could create new problems.” That’s an understatement.
Oakland Democrat Joan Buchanan, who chairs the assembly’s education committee, introduced AB 375 earlier this year as a “compromise” after fierce union opposition led to the defeat of Los Angeles Democrat Alex Padilla’s Senate Bill 1530. Both bills were written in response to Berndt’s heinous crimes.
The law currently lets local school boards suspend a teacher under “specified conditions, including immoral conduct.” Padilla’s bill, introduced last year, would have added language allowing a school board to suspend an employee for “serious or egregious unprofessional conduct.” The bill dealt only with credible claims that a teacher abused a child sexually or with drugs or violence.
But even that was too much for the unions. United Teachers of Los Angeles president Warren Fletcher claimed SB 1530 “solves nothing, places teachers at unfair risk, and diverts attention from the real accountability issues at LAUSD.”
Union Protects Predators
SB 1530 fell one vote short of getting out of the assembly’s 11-member education committee when four legislators abstained. Former state senator Gloria Romero charged the abstainers were “cowering in fear,” afraid to run afoul of the “moneyed political interests”—the unions. The Sacramento Bee‘s Dan Walters echoed that sentiment. “If the unions can have their way on child abuse, they can have their way on anything in the current Legislature,” he wrote.
Buchanan, one of two lawmakers on the education committee to vote against Padilla’s bill, offered AB 375 with union backing. Despite CTA president Dean Vogel‘s assurances, AB 375 never came close to fulfilling its promise to keep children safe.
The bill required that any misconduct case be concluded “within seven months of the date of the employee’s demand for a hearing.” That sounds reasonable, but as Romero argued recently, “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.”
What would happen if district officials couldn’t reach a decision within that time period? Could a teacher force the district to settle? The legislation was unclear.
Similarly, the California School Board Association (CSBA) pointed out in an analysis opposing AB 375 that the bill would have let a credibly accused teacher “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.” The bill would have handcuffed districts further by preventing officials from adding new charges or evidence of abuse to an existing complaint.
Adding Cost and Delay
SB 1530 would have given final say on teacher firings to districts. That’s a key reason why unions opposed it. AB 375, by contrast, would have kept an arbitration panel in place while letting any party file objections to its members’ qualifications. That, too, sounds reasonable, but as the state school board association noted, such objections add “cost and delay to the process without a benefit.”
Buchanan’s bill also limited the number of witnesses a district could bring against a teacher accused of sexual misconduct to five—a particularly egregious provision Brown singled out in his veto. Berndt may have molested more than 60 children and faces criminal charges for at least 23 of those. How could legislators exclude so many victims’ testimony?
AB 375 did include a few decent reforms, but the bill’s minor positives obviously couldn’t outweigh its overwhelming negatives. Now Brown wants lawmakers to “continue working with stakeholders to identify changes that are balanced and reduce procedural complexities.”
That mission shouldn’t be limited to teachers’ unions and their legislative cronies. Maybe next time, parents will be given a greater role in working out a solution that doesn’t protect union members at the expense of innocent children.