Los Angeles News Group / Daily Breeze

Daily Breeze gets documents on 23 cases of teacher misconduct

Triggered by a now-infamous scandal that erupted early this year at Miramonte Elementary School in the Los Angeles Unified School District, the Daily Breeze and several sister papers launch a project to shed light on a topic that often seems shrouded in secrecy: teacher misconduct.

Daily Breeze gets documents on 23 cases of teacher misconduct

In Torrance, a teacher came to school inebriated.

In Redondo Beach, a middle school teacher was accused of having an inappropriate relationship with a minor – a former student – whom he allegedly took on an excursion to Disneyland and met at a football game, where they were seen touching each other inappropriately.

In Hawthorne, a substitute teacher allegedly hit a student on the back to get his attention.

Each teacher either resigned or was fired.

These cases, along with 20 others across the South Bay, were contained in public documents obtained by the Daily Breeze from South Bay school districts.

Triggered by a now-infamous scandal that erupted early this year at Miramonte Elementary School in the Los Angeles Unified School District, the Daily Breeze and several sister papers launched the project to shed light on a topic that often seems shrouded in secrecy: teacher misconduct.

To get a glimpse, the Daily Breeze sent public records requests to a dozen school districts asking for the documents they routinely send the state to report cases of teacher misconduct. (The LAUSD was not part of the investigation, largely because a sister paper, the Los Angeles Daily News, has been looking into the matter there.)

Cooperation among the South Bay school districts was varied, but the vast majority responded in some fashion. In all, the dozen districts turned over about 23 cases dating back five years. Considering the
region employs some 3,700 public school teachers, it’s a small number, and serves as a good indication that South Bay classrooms are, by and large, safe places for students.

This story touches on the details of some of the area’s worst cases. But the Daily Breeze is not naming the majority of the disciplined teachers involved because their transgressions do not rise to a level that warrants violating their privacy. Only the names of teachers who have already been tried in criminal court are used.

As for the Miramonte debacle, it sparked widespread suspicion that teacher misconduct, especially of a sexual nature, might be far more prevalent than previously thought, and that administrators were sweeping allegations under the rug.

There, teacher Mark Berndt, a Torrance resident, was arrested in late January on suspicion of abusing 23 students in the large, urban elementary school. Among the allegations: that he fed third-graders spoonfuls of semen and took photos of students blindfolded, with huge cockroaches crawling on their faces.

The Miramonte story not only went national for its vile details, but also led to a cascade of revelations that have cemented the case’s status as an illustration of administrative failure.

It turns out, for instance, that LAUSD had no knowledge that Berndt had been the subject of a similar police investigation in 1993 looking into allegations of inappropriate touching. Also, the school district had failed to report the latest case to the state Commission on Teacher Credentialing – as required by state law, meaning that, as far as the general public was concerned, the teacher, as well as the allegations against him, had simply disappeared.

The case also seemed to confirm the conventional suspicion that it is too difficult to fire a teacher. Last June, six months into the due-process proceedings, the district paid Berndt $40,000 to resign.

The Daily Breeze has thus far turned up no evidence of South Bay school districts suppressing disturbing allegations or quietly shuffling dangerous teachers from school to school.

In fact, union representatives complain of an opposite phenomenon: School districts, perhaps emboldened by a current climate of distrust for teachers, have often been too quick to punish teachers based on anonymous allegations cast by parents and students.

Union officials, for instance, complain that Redondo Beach Unified regularly retains a private investigator to chase leads.

“They are so afraid of appearing in the community to be soft on discipline,” said Sandra Goins, director of the South Bay United Teachers.

Julie Shankle, president of the Torrance teachers union, said the Miramonte case couldn’t have come at a worse time for teachers, whom she believes have been under attack by the public and media of late.

“The increase in the demonization of teachers has just been wrong,” she said.

Shankle defends the lengthy process that exists for firing tenured teachers, which can last upwards of two years and usually requires that teachers on leave receive their full pay during that time. She likens the process to providing defense attorneys for anyone accused of a crime.

“I always hear people in private industry saying, `If they don’t like you (there), they just fire you – get over it,”‘ she said. “I ask, `Why don’t you want the same thing I have? Wouldn’t you like to have the chance to be involved and maybe exonerated?’ Maybe these are things we should all want.”

It isn’t uncommon, she added, for cases to be trumped up.

“Kids will do and say anything about a teacher they don’t like,” she said.

For their part, district administrators defend the practice of paying some teachers to walk away: Doing so can be far less expensive than covering the cost of not only the teacher’s salary, but also attorney fees, sometimes for both sides.

“These processes are extremely expensive,” said Nancy Billinger, assistant superintendent of human resources in the Redondo Beach Unified School District. “If we believe there’s a way to settle the matter as opposed to waiting, we oftentimes will.”

Billinger also defends her district’s tough stance on teacher discipline.

“In Redondo, we have a high standard for teacher performance, and we are willing to do what is necessary to hold teachers accountable who are not meeting our standards,” she said. “We have a superintendent and school board who are willing to finance the process.”

The findings

In any event, the majority of cases uncovered by the Daily Breeze were far from criminal.

Those that involved felony charges have already been extensively reported on.

They include the case of Louis Jay Haddad, 51, a former media-arts teacher at Redondo Union High School who pleaded guilty to engaging in a personal sexual act in front of a student in his empty sixth-period classroom in late 2009. He lost his job and his teaching credential, and was sentenced to 480 hours of community service.

There also was the case of Anthony “Tony” Angellano, 36, a former dance instructor at Palos Verdes Peninsula High, who in February was ordered to stand trial on six felony charges alleging that he engaged in oral copulation and other sexual acts five years ago with a girl who was 16 or 17. Angellano has disputed having a sexual relationship with the girl before she turned 18.

Others involve misdemeanor charges and have not been reported in the news.

The most serious of those appears to be the case of the Redondo Beach teacher who pleaded no contest to having “inappropriate physical contact” with a minor who had been his student in 2005-06.

That teacher, who once worked at Nick Parras Middle School, was accused of taking the girl to Disneyland; holding hands with the student and hugging her; and, in 2006-07, meeting his former student at a football game, where he allegedly began “inappropriately touching her on the thigh and back and allowing her to inappropriately touch him,” according to a statement of charges filed against him by the school district.

The teacher pleaded no contest to misdemeanor charges of child annoyance. He later fulfilled his probationary obligations and had the case expunged from his record, according to Redondo Beach City Prosecutor Melanie Chavira.

There also was the case of a teacher in Torrance fired in late 2007 after district administrators learned of his misdemeanor conviction for possessing methamphetamine.

Similarly, a teacher in Torrance resigned in October 2006, several weeks after she was placed on paid leave for showing up to class intoxicated.

The teacher “admitted that she had been drinking alcoholic beverages most of the night and that she had consumed her last alcoholic drink at approximately 5 a.m.” on the same morning she came to class, according to the statement the Torrance Unified School District sent to the CTC. She was driven to a local medical clinic and given a Breathalyzer test. Her blood-alcohol content was 0.168, more than twice the legal limit for impairment. It isn’t clear from the document whether the police were involved.

Aggressive behavior

Many of the incidents describe teachers accused of verbal or physical aggressiveness with students. These include:

A teacher in Redondo Beach who had allegedly established a pattern of talking down to her students, occasionally making them cry, calling them “morons,” “fools” and “pathetic,” telling them that her cats are smarter than them and saying they are destined to work at McDonald’s for the rest of their lives.

A teacher in Torrance who allegedly slapped a student on the arm and then placed the student in a timeout for an extended period of time.

Others accuse teachers of exhibiting behavior that is inappropriate. These include:

A tenured elementary school teacher in Redondo Beach who, in addition to being excessively absent, was accused of establishing a pattern of making inappropriate comments to students “concerning her own issues of personal stress, illnesses, depression and dating student’s (sic) parents and other inappropriate matters such as prostitution,” according to the district’s statement of charges against the teacher.

The statement went on to say that the teacher “has been guilty of alcohol or other drug abuse which makes her unfit to instruct or associate with children.” The district in October 2008 recommended that the school board fire the teacher. She ultimately resigned, according to a letter sent to the CTC in March of 2009.

A nontenured teacher in Torrance Unified who resigned after admitting to the principal that he had used his school computer to view inappropriate websites.

A tenured teacher in the Centinela Valley Union High School District who, according to the CTC statement, “occasionally made inappropriate jokes, remarks, and comments in class that were found by some to be offensive.”

The teacher opted to resign six months after the allegations were lodged, telling the district his behavior was related to a medical condition. Although Centinela Valley has a reputation for political strife between teachers and administrators, this was the only case involving a teacher the district released to the Daily Breeze.

The Centinela Valley district released another case involving Leuzinger High Principal Raul Carranza who resigned due to allegations of misconduct, but no details were attached. The Daily Breeze has sent a follow- up request for more information.

A cautionary tale

As for trumped-up charges that can spiral out of control to the detriment of the accused, Torrance Unified has its own cautionary tale.

In 2006, Leslie Stuart, a psychology teacher at North High School, was accused of making suggestive comments to several students. The accusers included a girl who claimed that Stuart – when admonishing her for flouting the school’s dress code – stated loudly in front of the class that he could see her nipples through her shirt. She also said he repeatedly referred to her as a bimbo.

Another student, a boy, made a slew of charges, including that Stuart would run his finger down the boy’s face and call him his girlfriend, and that Stuart would stand so close to the student that it seemed Stuart was trying to put his genitals in the boy’s face.

Stuart was acquitted by a jury.

“The jury deliberated for less than an hour,” said Mario Di Leva, executive director of the Torrance teachers union. Di Leva recalled the students’ testimony crumbling under cross- examination. Regarding the genitals-in-the-face accusation, for instance, the student acknowledged that the teacher was standing about four or five feet away, Di Leva said.

“That’s not a crotch in the face!” Di Leva remembers the defense attorney saying. “The charges were so bizarre in relation to what actually went on.”

Stuart, who could not be reached for comment, later sued the school district for firing him, charging that the move was retaliatory. The case was settled out of court.

“It cost that guy a lot,” Di Leva said. “It cost him his reputation.”

And yet, Di Leva credited administrators at Torrance Unified for their general fairness and professionalism in these matters.

Districts’ disclosures vary

Although most school districts in the area cooperated with the Daily Breeze’s request, their interpretations of what could be legally released varied.

Most forthcoming were the K-12 school districts in Torrance, Redondo Beach and the Palos Verdes Peninsula. These districts provided documents with the names intact.

Others provided documents but redacted the names. These included Lennox, Centinela Valley and Hawthorne. Of these, the Lennox district sent a document with a redacted name and no mention of the allegations against the teacher, rending the document virtually useless. When the Daily Breeze sought further information, the district responded by contacting the teacher, who, the district told the Daily Breeze in an email, would have 14 days to file an action to block the disclosure. Centinela eventually supplied documents that included names.

The K-8 Lawndale district took the most legally guarded approach, arguing that some reports sent to the CTC are exempt from disclosure. Its letter to the Daily Breeze also stated that all investigative processes are considered confidential until “final action” is taken.

Still others – such as Wiseburn, El Segundo, Hermosa Beach and Manhattan Beach – stated they simply had no cases to report.

Only one school district, Inglewood Unified, did not respond at all.