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Teacher dismissals pose challenges for districts
By SCOTT MARTINDALE and FERMIN LEAL



It took Santa Ana Unified less than two months to fire Jackson Elementary kindergarten teacher Linda Palmer after she arrived at work intoxicated in 2010 and then showed up for a meeting to discuss the incident with alcohol on her breath, according to district records.

In the neighboring Westminster School District, however, fifth-grade teacher Shirley Broney remains employed at Midway City's Hayden Elementary despite having pleaded guilty to four DUIs over the past 25 years – two before she was hired and two more in 2002 and 2010. She wore an ankle monitoring bracelet to school after her 2002 conviction, according to state records.

Both Palmer and Broney still hold active teaching licenses, but the way these cases were handled lays bare the wide latitude that school districts have in determining what constitutes a terminable teacher offense.

State laws mandate that educators accused of drug possession or sexual crimes against children be pulled from their classrooms immediately and terminated if convicted. But many other types of cases fall into a grayer area, leaving it up to each school district to evaluate the particular facts of a case and decide how to proceed.

Over the past five years, Orange County school districts reported 35 teachers leaving their staffs and one more case pending – nine more than the state required – over issues including criminal convictions, sexual assault and verbal abuse of students. The county's districts employ about 20,000 teachers.

"HR is not an exact science," said Sandy Hall, the Orange County Department of Education's executive director for administrative services. "There are so many things involved, so many variables to take into question. You have to take each case on a case-by-case basis."

Westminster School District Superintendent Richard Tauer said district officials decided against initiating dismissal proceedings against Palmer because the state did not revoke her teaching license.

"It's a shame that the credentialing commission didn't take further action," Tauer said of the state's decision to suspend Palmer's license.

"In terms of rising to the level of an employee dismissal, our legal counsel advised us that it's very unlikely we would be successful because these infractions were not specifically related to her employment with the district."

Santa Ana Unified spokeswoman Deidra Powell said keeping children safe and providing them good role models is the district's No. 1 priority. Five of the 12 teachers removed from service in Santa Ana still possess valid teaching licenses.

"We have been aggressive in terms of teacher discipline," Powell said. "Our board and superintendent have very high standards."

VARIED RESPONSES

Because state laws give school districts the ability to terminate an employee for such vague offenses as "immoral conduct" or "evident unfitness for service," some districts use that language to more aggressively weed out problem teachers, experts say.

At the other end of the spectrum are districts that opt not to initiate dismissal proceedings, even after a teacher is criminally charged.

"Districts sometimes struggle to demonstrate they have reached the level required to terminate the teacher," said San Francisco-based lawyer Laura Schulkind, president of the California Council of School Attorneys. "They're obligated to show there's a connection between the misconduct and the teacher's classroom effectiveness – will it impede the teacher's ability to be a moral exemplar?"

Fourteen Orange County school districts reported that from 2007 to July 2012, no teachers voluntarily or involuntarily left their jobs amid misconduct accusations. Of the other 14 districts that did, one-third of the cases were clustered in one school district – Santa Ana Unified, the county's largest, with 57,250 students.

Santa Ana Unified reported 12 teachers who resigned or were fired during investigations into their conduct. The county's second-largest district, Capistrano Unified – with 53,170 students – reported three such departures.

No district except Santa Ana reported more than three such departures in the five-year period, according to documents that the districts provided in response to an Orange County Register public records request.

Still, experts say it's impossible to know whether a district such as Santa Ana had more bad apples in its ranks or simply was more aggressive than neighboring districts about pushing out problem teachers.

Santa Ana's recently departed teachers run the gamut, with many not accused of crimes that caused them to lose their teaching license.

Segerstrom High School teacher Michael Seals was arrested in 2009 on suspicion of soliciting an undercover police officer for sex a few blocks from his school. Seals resigned after the district initiated termination proceedings against him, but his criminal case was dismissed after he served probation, and he still has an active teaching license.

Similarly, Willard Intermediate School music teacher Steven Jones retired in 2010 after the district began the process to fire him after he was accused of physical violence against children. But criminal charges were never filed, and Jones still holds a valid teaching credential.

The teacher was accused of grabbing a student by the neck and forcing him out of a chair; two months later, he was accused of entrapping a small group of students in his classroom and then grabbing one of the students by the wrist as he attempted to seize a piece of paper from her.

"We're constantly looking for ways to improve and increase the amount of screening we do," said Chad Hammitt, Santa Ana Unified's assistant superintendent for personnel. "We want to make sure anyone we put in front of kids is doing their best instructionally and morally."

MULTIPLE FACTORS

A number of factors can affect teacher removal rates among school districts, said Jennifer Goldstein, chairwoman of Cal State Fullerton's educational leadership department.

The number of applicants for a particular teaching position determines how selective a district can be, which in turn affects the amount of leeway to weed out less-than-stellar candidates, Goldstein said.

Also, a school's degree of openness affects how likely staff and students are to report suspicious activity and wrongdoing, Goldstein said. Teacher misconduct is more likely to be detected and reported at a school where teachers are constantly interacting with and being informally observed by peers, and where students feel comfortable and supported when lodging complaints, she said.

"It's very different than a place where kids are more anonymous and adults maybe have a more adversarial relationship with students and are more concerned with defending their colleagues against students," Goldstein said.

School district hiring personnel say they do everything they can to prevent problem teachers, especially child predators, from ever entering the classroom.

Some districts require that all prospective teachers be interviewed at both the school site level and by the district office. Others have applications reviewed by district staff trained to spot flaws such as false, incomplete and conflicting information. Some hiring officials also try to find and speak with individuals who aren't listed as references by the candidate.

Even in cases in which the district receives hundreds of applications per job opening – a common phenomenon now because of the huge numbers of laid-off teachers – districts insist the screening process remains just as vigilant. Not every application is rigorously screened, of course, but anyone who emerges as a finalist is methodically evaluated, officials say.

Interviewers are trained not just to vet whether the individual will be an effective teacher, but also to identify any potential character flaws, said Mark Douglas, the Fullerton School District's assistant superintendent for personnel. Asking questions designed to gauge someone's character and personal ethics is common, he said.

"It's a mix of training and intelligence," Douglas said. "Sometimes you can meet someone and tell right away if you wouldn't want to take them to dinner."

Russell Lee-Sung, assistant superintendent for human resources for the 32,700-student Anaheim Union High School District, said one red flag for him is references and recommendation letters provided by fellow teachers instead of from principals or other supervisors. He said he would likely avoid hiring any candidate whose former supervisor didn't provide a glowing recommendation.

But, he added, "There is no guarantee that any employee you hire will be successful, even when they may have been the perfect employee at their previous job."

Lee-Sung remains at the center of his school district's legal battle to fire former Oxford Academy high school history teacher Christopher Ontiveros, acquitted by a jury last year of five felony counts of having sex acts with a 17-year-old female student.

Lee-Sung said he could not discuss the case, but after Ontiveros was acquitted, Lee-Sung argued in a legal brief that the teacher had demonstrated unfitness for service and immoral conduct, and "persistently violated or refused to obey" laws and directives.

VIGILANCE IN MONITORING TEACHERS

Of the 36 Orange County teacher misconduct cases reviewed by the Register over the past five years, about two-thirds involved allegations of a sexual offense, whether grooming of a student victim or having a long-term sexual relationship.

Robert Shoop, a Kansas State University professor who has written extensively about teacher sexual misconduct, said most teachers who have inappropriate contact with students aren't serial child molesters, but rather fall victim to their own shortcomings and personality flaws.

Shoop said schools must be vigilant about monitoring teachers who:

• Have a poor sense of boundaries.

• Make unethical decisions of any kind.

• Have a difficult time discerning between right and wrong.

"In many cases I've seen, other teachers didn't recognize the behavior, or saw it and didn't report it, or couldn't believe the teacher was capable of it," said Shoop, author of "Sexual Exploitation in Schools."

"The bottom line for me is, if a school has a suspicion and can't prove it but thinks it might be happening, they have to question what they would rather defend – a wrongful-termination lawsuit or a teacher who rapes a child?"

Contact the writer: 714-796-7802 or smartindale@ocregister.com or Twitter: @MartindaleScott



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