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Scott Wilk: Teacher firing reform needed

Posted: March 29, 2013 2:00 a.m.
Updated: March 29, 2013 2:00 a.m.
 

As a father of two, I believe no one — particularly a child — should live in fear in his or her school or neighborhood. So one of my top priorities as your assemblyman is public safety.

Among the many issues that Sacramento has lacked courage to address is legislation making it easier to fire teachers who are woefully unfit to be in a classroom. Current state law requires an arduous, expensive and time-consuming process to dismiss a teacher for unprofessional conduct or unsatisfactory performance.

With teacher misconduct scandals reported more and more frequently, it is clear the status quo is failing to protect our students from classroom predators.

Like many parents in 2011, I was stunned when reading the arrest account of Mark Berndt, a 30-year veteran Los Angeles Unified School District teacher, who was charged with 23 counts of lewd conduct toward students between the ages of 7 and 10.

Shockingly, police investigations into Berndt’s behavior started two years before any action was taken.

A few days after Berndt’s arrest another teacher, Martin Bernard Springer, was arrested and charged with lewd acts against two former students.

Earlier this year yet another teacher, Robert Pimentel, was arrested on allegations he molested 20 students in his classroom.

In all of these cases investigation started months, if not years, before the teachers were removed from the classroom.

Adding insult to injury is the fact that state law makes it very challenging to fire or dismiss a teacher who poses a threat to our school children.

Imprudent union contracts and overly-complicated proceedings for school officials only add to the already-cumbersome process of investigation or dismissal, and often swift action gets hung up in the cross hairs of administrative procedures and review.

So why is the process outrageously long and difficult? Existing law requires a school district governing board not take action on charges of unprofessional conduct or unsatisfactory performance until 45 or 90 days after the charge has been made.

Waiting up to three months to investigate a charge that a teacher has acted inappropriately in a classroom is absurd and should be reversed.

We also need to eliminate employees’ ability to remove from records, after a given period of time, any complaints, reprimands or disciplinary action taken against that employee. In other words, teachers who know they have received poor reviews are allowed to bargain collectively for the removal of records documenting past incidents.

Only making the process more complicated is a law that bars testimony or evidence introduced at a dismissal or suspension hearing that relates to matters more than four years prior to the date of the current suspension or termination filing.

If a teacher is on his or her best behavior for a mere four years, that teacher’s record is essentially wiped clean. When it comes to protecting our youth, records should not just vanish into thin air because of good behavior or — even worse — a contract negotiation.

This is why I’ve introduced Assembly Bill 1221 aimed at protecting society’s most vulnerable by streamlining and reducing the time it takes to investigate, suspend or dismiss a teacher who has proven unable to act appropriately in the classroom.

AB 1221 would remove the 45- to 90-day waiting period that must occur before action is taken on the charge of unprofessional conduct.

It changes the make up of the Commission on Professional Competence from four to only one non-biased administrative law judge. Furthermore, it eliminates a current law that prohibits school districts from giving dismissal notices out between May 15 and Sept. 15 of any given year.

AB 1221 also eliminates the ability of public school employees to remove, through union contracts and after a certain period of time, an employee’s record of complaints, reprimands or disciplinary action.

In a time when a criminal record, judicial decision or credit score follows a person wherever he or she goes, so should a teacher’s personal conduct record.

Last year three legislators walked out of an Assembly Education Committee hearing so there were not enough "aye" votes to pass this needed reform. That action cost one of the legislators her job. It is my hope that regardless of party, legislators can come together and vote to better protect our school children.

Assemblyman Scott Wilk, R-Santa Clarita, represents the 38th Assembly District, which encompasses Simi Valley, the northern section of the San Fernando Valley and most of the Santa Clarita Valley.

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