Teachers suspected of abusing children will be investigated by a new generation of school staff with backgrounds in law enforcement and child protective services, according to the Los Angeles Unified School District.
"We're in the process of hiring right now," said Tamar Galatzan, the School Board member who last April got board approval for a series of measures to improve the district's ability to investigate allegations of employee sexual misconduct.
The District hopes to have the new investigative team in place by the end of December, according to a response memo from Michelle King, senior deputy superintendent for school operations.
The number of cases under investigation has increased significantly in the past two years. The uptick began after John Deasy became superintendent and brought a new emphasis on teacher discipline.
Then in early 2012, the charging of former Miramonte teacher Mark Berndt with abusing 23 children unleashed a flood of suspicions against other educators across the Southland.
Traditionally, the district has relied in most cases on principals to lead the investigations of suspect teachers at their schools.
"When they got to the investigations, the principals were overloaded and not trained for these sensitive investigations," Galatzan said.
The district is also in the process of setting up a computerized "data warehouse" to centralize and "consolidate misconduct, discipline, and investigation data," according to King's Aug. 29 memo.
In recent years, the increase in the number of teachers removed from classrooms has outstripped the district's ability to keep up with the investigations. When a teacher falls under suspicion of serious misconduct, district policy calls for the teacher to be removed immediately, and kept away from students.
Such teachers are typically assigned to report to district offices and during school hours to remain in offices known as "teacher jails." The district refers to those suspect teachers as being "housed."
During 2010-11, the average number of housed teachers was 144. The following year, that number increased to 248, then grew again last school year to 289, according to statistics provided by the LAUSD General Counsel's office.
The teacher jail population hit a peak of 320 last April.
In some cases, suspect but uncharged teachers remain housed for extended periods of time before the district makes a decision to proceed with dismissal or return them to the classroom.
"You're sent basically to do nothing," said Michael Griffin, a teacher removed from Crenshaw High School last October, and told to report each school day to a room on the 11th floor of the school District's downtown headquarters.
"It's too important not to say anything. Because it's wrong," Griffin said.
"The district has developed a system of indefinite detention," said Warren Fletcher, president of United Teachers Los Angeles. "It's a system that gums up the works."
While assigned to teacher jail, the suspect teachers remain on the district's payroll.
"Just sitting there, for days, weeks, months, if not years, is unacceptable," said Galatazan, an attorney who works as a prosecutor for the Los Angeles City Attorney. "We need to have a better, stronger system to resolve these."
Fletcher expressed hope that in cases where suspicions prove unfounded, district reforms will speed the return of those teachers to their classrooms. But he said the district needs to be more transparent and noted the district had not provided him a copy of King's response memo.
Fletcher also said the expert investigators the district is bringing in need to be "independent."
Many assigned to teacher jail contend some principals abuse the system to punish or get rid of teachers they don't like.
Galatzan acknowledged she has heard anecdotal evidence of such cases.
She observed that the current system offers a perverse incentive for a principal with such a motive not to expedite an investigation that would lead to the teacher's return.
When the new school year began last month, the count in the various teacher jails across the LA district had dropped from its spring high to 265. Galatzan sees that as a step in the right direction, and hopes the phase in of reforms can continue to reduce the number.
But she emphasized the district must keep the ability to remove teachers from the classroom when suspicion of serious misconduct is raised.
That means the district will continue to need places to re-assign them during the time it takes to vet the suspicion.
Professional investigation will also enable the district to make better decisions on cases, Galatzan said, and when dismissals are appealed, be better prepared to defend them.