Our review of the Los Angeles Unified School District's (district) handling of allegations of employee abuse against students highlighted the following:
In terms of student enrollment, the Los Angeles Unified School District (district) is the largest school district in California. During the 2011-12 school year, it was responsible for 659,246 enrolled kindergarten through 12th-grade (K-12) students receiving educational instruction at 759 school sites and 198 charter schools. The district employed approximately 27,000 certificated K-12 classroom teachers and more than 4,600 substitute teachers. Additionally, it employed more than 5,100 teacher assistants who do not hold a certificate to teach from the Commission on Teacher Credentialing (commission). The district also employed nearly 30,400 classified employees, who are not required to have a teaching certificate, in positions such as campus aide, food service worker, and clerk. Because most students attending district schools are under the age of 18, employee misconduct against students generally entails child abuse. Examples of child abuse include physical abuse and sexual abuse or exploitation.
State law requires that school employees report suspected child abuse immediately or as soon as practically possible by calling a law enforcement entity and filing a suspected child abuse report within 36 hours. District policies have detailed reporting and investigative processes for allegations of suspected child abuse, including allegations of employee abuse against students.
Moreover, state regulations require school districts to report to the commission within 30 days cases of a certificated employee's change of employment status, such as a dismissal or other termination, as a result of an allegation of misconduct or while an allegation of misconduct is pending. Further, state law requires the commission be notified within 10 days when a certificated employee is put on a compulsory leave of absence because of charges for certain sex offenses or controlled substance crimes. However, the district often did not properly notify the commission when required to do so, such as when employees were dismissed while allegations of misconduct were pending. The district did not realize it had failed to report many of these cases until a high-profile incident that went unreported for more than six months led the district to review its past reporting practices. The commission uses these reports to review an employee's case and to suspend or revoke his or her teaching credential if necessary.
The superintendent of schools directed district officials and principals to undertake two separate projects intended to improve district reporting processes. One of the projects—the commission reporting project—led to about 600 cases being reported to the commission in a span of three months. However, this large increase in the number of cases reported included many not requiring reporting and caused a needless increase in workload for the commission. Our review of the information the district provided to the commission found that the district failed to report as required at least 144 cases—including cases involving employee misconduct against students—and they were submitted a year or more late when the district finally did report them. Of the 144 cases, 31 were more than three years late when they were reported to the commission. This lack of reporting resulted from systematic problems within the district, such as inconsistent office processes. As a result of the delays in reporting these cases, the commission was not able to determine promptly whether it was appropriate to revoke the teachers' certificates and thus prevent the individuals from working in other school districts. The district has yet to complete the second project, which involves a review of employee files by school principals, and the district will not know the project's full effect until all files are reviewed by its central office and it determines how many cases were investigated and whether disciplinary actions were taken.
Further, California has no statewide mechanism to communicate among school districts when a classified employee at any school district separates by dismissal, resignation, or settlement during the course of an investigation involving misconduct with students. Thus, a classified employee who has separated from his or her district might be able to find employment with other school districts without those school districts knowing the circumstances under which the employee left a previous position.
The district has made improvements to its policies and procedures related to reporting, investigating, and tracking suspected child abuse over time. For example, the district implemented two tracking systems that allow improved reporting and tracking of suspected child abuse and created a unit that investigates complex cases of suspected child abuse. In addition, although independent charter schools are largely autonomous and are not required to follow the district's policies and procedures regarding child abuse reporting, the information we reviewed at two charter management organizations indicated that adequate processes are in place to report child abuse. District-required charter language also obligates charter schools to inform the district about notices of investigations by outside regulatory agencies, lawsuits, or other formal complaints within one week of the school's receipt of such notices.
Available documentation related to our review of 24 personnel files containing child abuse allegations indicate that the district generally followed state law when reporting suspected child abuse and generally followed its own policies and procedures related to investigating child abuse allegations and to removing a suspected employee from a school site after an allegation was reported. However, we found that the district did not always act in a timely manner on some allegations during the investigation process. Although a criminal investigation conducted by law enforcement might cause the district to delay or put on hold an administrative investigation by the district, we found some delays in the investigation process that the district was unable to justify. For example, until the district's investigations unit took it, one case we reviewed did not move forward for almost 14 of the more than 18 months that it was open. The local district was unable to explain what occurred during that 14-month time period.
In addition, the district follows a progressive discipline process and state laws related to dismissing employees, both of which increase the time for the district to see a case to its conclusion. Nonetheless, for cases we reviewed, the district could not adequately explain some delays in disciplining or dismissing certain employees suspected of child abuse. For example, in one case, we noted 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.
The district is responsible for keeping an employee who is being investigated for misconduct away from the school site during the investigation. The district's policy for addressing this responsibility is to house the employee—to relocate him or her away from its school sites. Since its creation in 2008, a database that tracks housed employees reports that the district has housed more than 700 employees for various reasons. The length of time that the employee is housed can range from a day to years, depending on the time it takes to make a determination on the case. During this time, the district continues paying the employee's salary. In fact, as of mid-September 2012, the district had paid $3 million in salaries to 20 employees whom the district had housed the longest for allegations of misconduct against students, including one employee who has been housed for 4.5 years.
Our review found that the length of time and the expense of the process for dismissing the district's certificated employees suspected of child abuse contribute to the district's entering into settlement agreements rather than continuing with attempts to dismiss the employees. State law outlines the dismissal process that must be used for certificated and classified employees. The dismissal of classified employees and substitute teachers is effective immediately, regardless of whether the employees challenge the district's decisions. In contrast, the process for dismissing certificated employees is more lengthy and expensive for the district. Certificated employees who appeal their dismissals are each entitled to a hearing before the Commission of Professional Competence. As a result, the district may decide to reach a settlement agreement with certificated employees rather than attempt to continue with this lengthy process. The district has made some efforts to track settlement agreements; however, none of its tracking efforts provides the total cost of the settlement or complete information on the nature of the misconduct. Having one division within the district maintain a districtwide tracking mechanism for issued settlements could ensure that the district has complete and readily accessible information. We believe this information could help the district identify and analyze patterns and trends associated with providing settlements, which could help streamline and make the process less expensive.
To ensure that the commission is made aware of certificated employees who need to be reviewed to determine whether the employees' teaching credentials should be suspended or revoked, the district should adhere to state requirements for reporting cases to the commission.
The Legislature should consider establishing a mechanism to monitor classified employees who have separated from a school district by dismissal, resignation, or settlement during the course of an investigation for misconduct involving students, similar to the oversight provided by the commission for certificated employees. If such a mechanism existed, school districts throughout the State could be notified before hiring these classified employees.
To ensure that investigations proceed in a timely manner and that the district disciplines employees promptly, the district should increase its oversight of open allegations of employee abuse against students.
To ensure that it does not duplicate efforts and that its information is complete, the district should identify one division to maintain a districtwide tracking mechanism for settlements that includes the total amounts paid and descriptions of the misconduct.
The district agreed with our recommendations and outlined the steps it has taken or plans to take to implement the recommendations we directed to it.