Los Angeles News Group / Daily Breeze Shifting Paradigms

Case of cursing LAUSD teacher raises legal questions about secret recordings

Case of cursing LAUSD teacher raises legal questions about secret recordings

Published Oct. 12, 2013


It’s a story as old as smartphones.

A teacher has a weak moment in class and loses his or her cool — perhaps flipping a desk, or berating a student. A student in the class uses his or her mobile device to record the meltdown. The video or audio recording ends up on the Internet, and the teacher gets in trouble.

In the case of a high school English teacher at HArts Academy in Harbor City, the meltdown took the form of a profane tirade in response to being heckled by a student.

The teacher, who last week was placed on paid leave while Los Angeles Unified School District administrators investigate the matter, argues that she shouldn’t be disciplined because the student broke the law by making the recording.

But is that true?

It turns out the answer is complicated. Under California Education Code Section 51512, it indeed is illegal for any person — including a student — to use an electronic device to record what is happening in the classroom without the consent of the teacher.

But here is where the matter gets tricky: The teeth in the law really applies only to people who are not students. That is, any nonpupil who is caught recording a classroom discussion without the teacher’s consent can be charged with a misdemeanor.

“If I want to audit my kid’s class — maybe I think the material violates some religious belief — I can’t record the class without the teacher’s permission,” said Rebecca Lonergan, an assistant professor of law at USC.

When it comes to students who are caught surreptitiously recording their teachers, the punishment is determined by school administrators.

“If it’s a student, you’re not going to criminally prosecute them for recording their teacher,” said Lonergan, who also has worked with the U.S. Attorney’s Office, where she dealt with many wiretapping cases. After all, “they may be doing it with good motivations, as a study aid.”

That reportedly wasn’t the case for the student who recorded the HArts teacher, whose name the Daily Breeze has declined to publish.

According to the teacher, the student had been egging her on in front of the 12th-grade class.

That student then allegedly brought the recording to a faculty member on the campus of Narbonne High School, the comprehensive high school from which the brand-new academy split this fall. The HArts Academy teacher contends the Narbonne teacher began disseminating the recording to others on campus.

Does this mean that the student who recorded the teacher is subject to greater discipline because her intent was to do harm to the teacher? Not necessarily.

LAUSD spokeswoman Ellen Morgan said the district policy is that cellphones are not allowed to be turned on in class. The school policy does not distinguish between using a phone to text with a friend or using it to embarrass a teacher.

“On is on,” she said. “The policy clearly states it shouldn’t be on.”

Outside of the classroom, the laws on surreptitious recordings in California are relatively strict.

California is among 12 states nationwide to require “two-party consent,” meaning a conversation between two people in person or over the phone cannot be recorded unless both parties are aware. (The law also applies to conversations with more than two participants.)

The other 38 states, and the District of Columbia, require just one party to be aware.

Two-party consent law — codified in California law by Penal Code Section 632 — means an incriminating statement cannot be used against a person who was secretly recorded by another person who was not acting as an agent of law enforcement. In other words, the evidence is not admissible in court.

Does this mean that the teacher can be disciplined even though the evidence that launched the investigation was obtained as the result of an illegal act?

According to a precedent case in 1999, the answer is yes. In Evens v. Superior Court, Karen Evens, a science teacher at LAUSD, was surreptitiously videotaped by two students. Although reports online are not clear about what the video captured, it’s clear that it depicted some sort of misconduct on the part of the teacher.

The LAUSD school sought to use it as evidence in a disciplinary hearing. Through the teachers union, Evens filed a lawsuit arguing that the evidence was not permissible in court.

Ultimately, the California Court of Appeal ruled against the teacher.

The students, meanwhile, were suspended.

As for the student in this case, LAUSD officials said the punishment will depend on several factors.

“You always look at discipline of students as a continuum,” said Chris Ortiz, LAUSD’s director of school operations. “We look at: Does the student have a prior history of this type of violation?”

If so, he said, a suspension might be in order. If not, “we look at other means of correction — volunteering at the school, maybe, or writing a letter of apology.”

Officials from United Teachers Los Angeles declined to comment.

Los Angeles News Group / Daily Breeze Shifting Paradigms

LAUSD teacher placed on leave after profanity-laden outburst is recorded by student

LAUSD teacher placed on leave after profanity-laden outburst is recorded by student

An audio clip of a high school English teacher repeatedly dropping the F-bomb during a classroom outburst has gone viral on the campus of Narbonne High in Harbor City.

In the clip, which was recorded by a student on Sept. 26, the teacher yells “I know my f–ing s–t. Don’t f— with that. I’m tired of trying to educate you, and you guys resist every step of the f—ing way. Get the f— out of here.” (Listen to the audio clip).

The outburst occurred in the classroom of a fledgling new school for performing arts that is located on the campus of Narbonne High. Called Humanities and Art Academy — or HArts Academy for short — the school officially broke away from the comprehensive high school this fall.

Although students at Narbonne and HArts know the teacher’s name, the Daily Breeze has decided not to publish it, believing that wide dissemination would cause years of damage to her reputation, far outweighing her transgression. The teacher has been placed on paid leave while Los Angeles Unified School District administrators investigate.

Reached at home, the teacher said she is deeply sorry.

“You know, I had a weak moment,” she said. “Forgive me.”

The teacher added that the clip was recorded by a student who had been heckling her in front of the 12th-grade class. That student then allegedly brought the recording to a Narbonne High faculty member with whom the teacher has had an adversarial relationship. The HArts Academy teacher contends the Narbonne teacher began disseminating the recording to others on campus.

“This girl took my moment of weakness and used it against me,” the teacher said of the student. “And then the teacher (at Narbonne) egged (the student) on to send it to her, and then they disseminated it. It’s just cruel.”

The episode is the latest example of how students using their cellphones to take pictures or recordings of what is happening in the classroom can have a profound effect on campus. It also raises questions about what constitutes inappropriate behavior on the part of a teacher in the classroom.

Several weeks ago, a teacher was placed on leave at Da Vinci Science charter school in Hawthorne after a student snapped a photo of a test question that took a jab at crosstown rival Hawthorne High.

Said the prompt: “Little known fact: the early years at Jamestown were characterized by violence, a lack of knowledge and the presence of many women of questionable moral character. A little like modern-day Hawthorne High School.”

The prompt was photographed by a student at Da Vinci, who emailed it to a friend at Hawthorne High, who in turn posted it on Instagram. The photo eventually made its way to officials at the Centinela Valley Union High School District.

Larry Rosen, a psychology professor at Cal State Dominguez Hills, said the incidents are a reminder to teachers — and, really, to everyone — that these days, every human interaction has potential to be public.

“Technology has led us into a conundrum,” said Rosen, a leading scholar on technology devices and their effect on the human psyche. “On the one hand, you get to know everything, everywhere, anytime you want. But the price you pay is your privacy.”

Rosen said he bears this in mind when delivering his lectures, though he says has hasn’t allowed the presence of mobile devices to alter the way he teaches.

“I still swear in class,” he said with a laugh. “But I knew that if I didn’t tame my language, somebody could have complained about me long ago. But I think (swearing) can provide a hook for some students to remember material.”

Of course, college and high school are different environments, and their standards for what constitutes acceptable behavior by teachers differ accordingly.

LAUSD’s code of ethics includes a dozen behaviors for teachers to avoid. Among them:

“Engaging in any behaviors, either directly or indirectly with a student(s) or in the presence of a student(s), that are unprofessional, unethical, illegal, immoral, or exploitative.”

Ellen Morgan, a spokesperson for LAUSD, said that, generally speaking, a violation of the code will trigger an investigation.

“At the outcome of the investigation, he/she will meet with the individual and conference, reprimand, discipline and/or move to recommend dismissal,” Morgan said in an email.

She added that, in situations similar to the one in question — provided no other information surfaces to contradict the action — the employee will often be issued a “notice of unsatisfactory act” for the behavior.

The HArts Academy teacher did point out that the girl who recorded the outburst broke school rules just by having her cellphone on in class. Indeed, LAUSD policy prohibits the use of cellphones during class time.

In any case, the teacher was leading a classroom discussion about race and ethnicity when the confrontation erupted. The teacher said she was trying to make the point that the term “African-American” is, in some respects, a misnomer.

“You’re an American first,” she said, adding that her forebears were Italian, and she doesn’t refer to herself as Italian-American.

The teacher — who worked at Narbonne for many years before switching over to the new school — said the girl repeatedly told her that she was wrong. “I was trying to explain the difference between race and ethnicity, and this girl kept poking the bear,” she said.

“I’ve always felt safe with my students,” said the teacher, who attended Narbonne herself. “That’s why it hurts so much that someone would do this.”

The teacher said she was feeling burdened by two major stressors that day. First, she was in physical pain, and soon after had an appendectomy. Also, HArts has been locked in a bitter fight with Narbonne High over 90-plus students who are reportedly being kept from switching from Narbonne to the new school. The dispute has forced the new school — which enrolls 385 students — to shed four of its 16 teachers. Meanwhile, Narbonne has added three teachers to its roster.

The resulting tension has had the effect of pitting some teachers against each other on the same campus. The teacher in question said she believes this atmosphere of distrust added incentive for teachers at Narbonne to pass the sound clip around.

“These are people who used to be my friends,” she said.

Los Angeles News Group / Daily Breeze

Principal of Miramonte during abuse scandal transfers to Harbor City elementary school

Principal of Miramonte during scandal transfers to Harbor City elementary school

By Rob Kuznia and Abby Franklin

The man who served as principal at Miramonte Elementary School during its infamous abuse scandal in 2012 has been reassigned to the same position at President Avenue Elementary School in Harbor City.

The announcement that Martin Sandoval will be the principal at President Avenue in the fall came as a surprise to parents, who complain they were not adequately notified. The parents say they learned there was a new principal when they received an automated phone call placed to them on Tuesday night. It mentioned two parent meetings to introduce a new principal – both scheduled for Thursday evening.

“Some parents aren’t putting two and two together,” said one parent in an anonymous call to the Daily Breeze. “I wouldn’t have realized it was the same guy if another parent hadn’t been handing out fliers before the meeting saying so.”

Sandoval, who will take the reins at President Avenue from the retiring Milica Mladinich, had been the principal of Miramonte Elementary in South Los Angeles for three years when Mark Berndt, a longtime teacher at the school, was arrested in his Torrance apartment on suspicion of abusing 23 students over a five-year period. Among the allegations: he fed third-graders spoonfuls of semen and took photos of students blindfolded, with huge cockroaches crawling on their faces.

The Berndt case has yet to go to trial. The teacher remains jailed on $23 million bail and has pleaded not guilty. His next court date is set for July 15.

John Deasy, superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District, vouched for the professionalism of Sandoval, who during this past school year has worked not as a principal but as director in the North East Service Center.

“At Miramonte, Mr. Sandoval acted quickly when he had information about alleged misconduct to protect the children,” Deasy said in a statement Friday. “These incidents impacted everyone at Miramonte, but we are glad that Mr. Sandoval is healing with the community and returning to a school site – the place where he belongs. He will be an effective leader for the school.”

Attorneys representing the students in a civil lawsuit against the district disagree that Sandoval acted quickly. In fact, Sandoval is named as a defendant in the case.

“It’s very disappointing that everybody from the superintendent to the principals … all fell asleep,” said Luis Carrillo, one of the attorneys. “They did not protect the children.”

Among the plaintiffs’ allegations against Sandoval is one stating that he, in or around 2009, walked into Berndt’s classroom, where he witnessed the teacher videotaping students “with the camera aimed at the children’s groins.” It goes on to say that Sandoval responded by saying, “We can’t be doing this or it could get us into trouble.”

Sandoval couldn’t be reached for comment Friday. But he has been credited for bringing some positive change to Miramonte before the scandal left it in smoldering pieces.

A Spanish speaker, he reached out to parents and saw to it that the students were properly tutored in English and math, according to an article in the Los Angeles Times. He started a parent council and a school dance, and even arranged a surprise visit from a member of the Black Eyed Peas.

At the parent meeting at President Avenue School in Harbor City, Sandoval said he intended to start a PTA, which currently doesn’t exist at the school, a parent said.

The Miramonte story not only went national for its vile details, but also led to a cascade of similar allegations about other teachers within the school and elsewhere in LAUSD. It triggered a massive investigation that required putting all of the school’s 100-plus teachers on leave and replacing them with substitutes and other replacements – a transaction that cost $5 million.

Many of the teachers were allowed to return after they were cleared of wrongdoing in the investigation. Sandoval was briefly reassigned to Sierra Park Elementary in El Sereno. But he left that post several days later, in August, potentially to take the director job. (District officials declined to comment further on his employment history.)

The reassignment to Sierra Park Elementary caused at least one parent there to express alarm on Facebook.

“We had the pleasure of welcoming a new principal interestingly enough it was the same principal from Miramonte elementary school … Martin Sandoval,” the parent wrote, according to a blog called LA School Report. “tHANK gOD (sic) he was removed after four days and the LAUSD barely made it public today after the fact.”

But Judith Perez, president of the Associated Administrators of Los Angeles, said Sandoval is not only highly capable but also blameless when it comes to the Miramonte debacle. She worries that his reputation will be unfairly tarnished.

“The district did an internal investigation. We understand that he is entirely blameless from the district’s point of view,” she said. “People are accused of things all the time. There are all kinds of lawsuits. That does not imply any guilt whatsoever.”

Los Angeles News Group / Daily Breeze

Daily Breeze gets documents on 23 cases of 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.