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L.A. Unified Voted To Overhaul Teacher Jail

Evie Liu |
June 11, 2013 | 3:14 a.m. PDT

Staff reporter


Hundreds of teachers from Miramonte Elementary School were put on paid leave by LAUSD for other misconduct allegations, after Miramonte teacher Mark Berndt was arrested for allegedly gagging, blindfolding and then photographing his students. (Getty Image)
Hundreds of teachers from Miramonte Elementary School were put on paid leave by LAUSD for other misconduct allegations, after Miramonte teacher Mark Berndt was arrested for allegedly gagging, blindfolding and then photographing his students. (Getty Image)

With a trembling voice and make-up blurred by tears, Sigi Siegel addressed the Los Angeles Unified school board on April 16.

“I have been working for LAUSD for 26 years. I am a high quality and irreplaceable teacher...” said Siegel, who listed all her teaching experience and achievement and tried to appeal against her dismissal from the district in February. 

Siegel is one of the hundreds of teachers who have lost their jobs after staying in the so-called “teacher jail” or “rubber room” - a place to house teachers accused of misconduct during a pending investigation. 

Investigations usually takes months, if not years, to complete, since it is usually done by school principals who do not have the time and expertise to conduct this kind of investigation. 

David Tokofsky, a strategist for the Associated Administrators of L.A., said that principals need more training, knowledge and assistance to do this job. He claimed that hundreds of assistant principals have been laid off in the last five years, leaving a heavy workload for principals.

According to LA Weekly, the average time of teachers’ stay in the "jail" is 127 days. During this period of time, L.A. Unified keeps paying the teachers’ salaries while hiring substitutes to fill the classrooms. The cost is enormous - about $1.4 million a month for salaries and investigations and $865,000 for substitutes, according to the Daily News

This problem did not cause much attention until the sexual misconduct scandal at Miramonte Elementary School last year sparked a surge of investigations and pushed the number of housed teachers to more than 300. L.A. Unified said it was time to overhaul the system. 

At the April 16 meeting, board member Tamar Galatzan’s “Protect Children and Safeguard Due Process” resolution was passed without dissent, which will streamline and speed up the investigation process by putting the job in the hands of professional investigators rather than school administrators.

Within 90 days, Superintendent John Deasy will report back with a detailed plan on how many investigators the district should hire and how the district would pay for it.

“We met with United Teachers of Los Angeles, Associated Administrators of LA and district staff,” said Galatzan, “We got everyone’s input on what they thought the problem was. That was our jumping-off point.”

But David Lyell, the secretary of UTLA, said the union is still concerned with the new resolution. “Ms. Galatzan’s resolution is absolutely in the right direction, but any motion is only good as it comes to implementation,” Lyell said.

Tokofsky from Associated Administrators of L.A. also indicates that the resolution itself means nothing until more specific details come from the superintendent within the 90 days.

“We hope things will be done in the spirit of due process and interest of children, but the school board cannot just declare something,” he said.

Lyell thinks the most important thing is to make sure the investigators are completely independent. “Eternally, in the hearings, teachers are forced to face district officers that are not neutral,” he said. 

But it seems that many people ignore the fact that the sluggish process is not only a nightmare for the school district, but also, if not more terrible, for teachers under investigation. 

During their time in the "jail," suspended teachers can do nothing but come and sit in the same room every day.

“They can read. I allow them to have computers, but there is no Internet access in the room,” said Jan Davis, who is charge of the operation of the “teacher jail” located at Daniel Webster Middle School.

The district claims that the new resolution was proposed in hopes of quickly ousting the guilty and exonerating the innocent, but there is rarely anyone found “innocent.” About 80 percent of accused teachers end up losing their jobs and all benefits. Only few can walk out of the teacher jail with their job back.

Last year, the Board of Education fired 99 teachers and allowed 122 others to resign. Only 16 returned, according to the LA School Report.

But that does not necessarily mean these teachers are all guilty. 

Leonard Isenberg was a teacher at Central High School Tri/C for years. After being accused of watching pornography on the district’s computer and pulled out of the classroom in 2010, he was housed in two different teacher "jails" and at home for eight months. According to Isenberg, most teachers choose to resign since they cannot stand the unfair treatment and desperate atmosphere.

“Rubber room employees were treated as sub-human,” said Siegel, who experienced Post-Traumatic Stress (PTS) during her stay in the teacher jail. 

“We were confined to a space called a ‘bay.’ We couldn’t walk around the floor. We have to sign in and out when going the restroom or cafeteria,” said Siegel about her experience on the 11th floor of LAUSD’s Beaudry building. “When I first got there, I was so upset. I was crying, I had a hard time to breathe. I felt like I was in a shock, both physical and emotional.” 

“If you are arrested and put in Guantanamo, do you think it will get any better if you are getting paychecks?” asked Isenberg. 

Lyell was frustrated during the negotiation with the district on this issue. “We have been talking about the housed teachers’ treatment for a while and the district did not change anything,” he said.

As for those who went through the process and were eventually fired by the district, most of them did not go through one single court hearing before dismissal. Their fate was in the hands of their principals and the school district. 

“Until today, I haven’t yet seen the inside of any independent forum,” said Isenberg.

After two internal meetings with the district administrators, Siegel was dismissed one year after being removed from the classroom. She didn’t know who was in charge of her investigation or if there was an investigation at all. 

“These meetings I went to are just jokes. They wouldn’t listen to you, since they have already made up their mind,” she said. 

Siegel is now in the process of appealing. She will go to a trial at the Office of Administration Hearing next year and this would be her first time talking to someone outside the school system.

Even if she wins, the district might appeal again. It would be a long and painful way for her to go.

But not everyone can afford to drag out this process. Without any income and benefits, fired teachers have to struggle with their month-by-month life expense and the attorney fees. Many of them have no choice but to settle. “Every pressure is on you to end it, to walk away,” said Isenberg.

Siegel said as far as she knows, only a few teachers could make it to the OAH hearing. 

“If you are the teachers, I am LAUSD. I cut my arm, you cut your arms. If blood is money, who can bleed longer?” asked Isenberg, “You without a salary or the school district that has $7000 billions a year?”   

A more crucial question is, are these teachers being dismissed for a proper reason?

Hundreds of teachers were pulled from the classroom just for a “credible allegation” of misconduct, which could be as simple as a report from a student or even another staff member without any proof. 

Siegel recalled her time in the teacher jail and didn’t remember anyone with serious crime allegations. “Everybody I talked to... nobody here was a child molester that has done anything literally criminal. Some people didn’t even know why they were there,” she said.

Siegel herself was accused of using a “needle” - which was actually a sterilized lancet in a medical kit - to test her students’ glucose levels in class. “Glucose testing is a safe procedure and did not endanger the health of the kids... Anyone can do a diabetic test to any other person, a license is not required,” she said.

Isenberg’s case sounds even more ridiculous. He was removed from his classroom in 2010 for watching pornography on district’s computer, while the pornography was actually found nine months after the computer was given to another teacher. “There is no chain of custody,” said Isenberg. “None of this makes any sense.”

“The district policy is to fire first, ask questions later,” said Lyell. In a newsletter earlier this year, UTLA called LAUSD’s rubber room a “destructive overreaction by putting into teacher jail employees who clearly should not be there... often on already disproved accusations.”

Despite public support, however, it seems that the union did not protect the teachers very well for the $57 fee they are paid per month.

 “I received no support from my chapter chairs. They sat in my conferences and did not say a word,” said Siegel. “They never asked for copies of my responses and did not intervene on my behalf.” She believed the UTLA co-chairs are afraid of her former principal, Dr. Michelle Windmueller, after witnessing her oust nine other teachers from Selma Avenue Elementary School.

 “Either by incompetence or outright collusion, they have allowed LAUSD to target and get rid of thousands of teachers,” said Isenberg.

L.A Unified wouldn’t provide the data of teacher jail cases for the reason of “privacy," so after his dismissal, Isenberg started his own website, perdaily.com. He blogs on his site and works with many education activists and lawyers, protesting against the illegal teacher jail system and appealing for the right of teachers to be respected and protected.

He has compiled a database of more than 300 “targeted” teachers, all of which came to him and claimed they did nothing wrong or just made minor mistakes. George Buzzeti, director of Policy of CORE-CA, a civil and human right group, also said that about 80 teachers have come to him and asked for help.

According to Isenberg, most of the targeted teachers have one thing in common - they are all at the top salary scale with years of experience and are about to be vested in their lifetime health care under the Rule of 80, which means when their years of service in LAUSD plus their age reaches 80, they could get their lifetime health benefits. Many teachers were fired and the access to this benefit taken away right a few years before they satisfy this rule. 

Siegel is a typical example, who is only five years away from her life health benefits and a long-time diabetes sufferer. That means she would cost the district more on her health care, which has been a big burden for the district budget.  

As for 2011, L.A Unified already had $13 billion of unfunded benefits for current and retired LAUSD employees’ health care. If all paid, health care would eat up 25 percent of the district’s general fund.

The paychecks for teachers are also a headache for the school district.

“Teachers represent approximately 87 percent of the total budget for public education,” said Isenberg. “In this business where a hedge fund investing in charter schools could double its money in seven years, there is a great incentive to get rid of fairly compensated teachers and replace this with poorly compensated instructors straight out of college for a fraction of the cost.”

He further explained that while hiring an experienced teacher might cost $80,000 a year, the substitutes only cost about $35,000. “For each teacher they dismissed, they can save $45,000 on salary and $15,000 on benefits. They did this to 853 teachers in 2011,” said Isenberg.

This point of view finds its support from UTLA as well. “These teachers are usually older teachers who earn more money or near their life benefit,” said Lyell, who thinks the district is “potentially” trying to get rid of older teachers, “But we needs to get more statistics on it.”

The union is gathering data to possibly pursue an age discrimination lawsuit against the district.

District Superintendent Deasey denied the claim that the district is conducting a “witch hunt” against high-paid aged teachers who are about to enjoy their lifetime health benefits.

“That is completely inaccurate,” he said to the Daily News in a story last year, “What we want is for students to be safe. A witch hunt would be if we were going after teachers. But the complaints come to us, and we're responding by ensuring that policies are enforced.”

Galatzan is also pushing the new bill with the same proposal, AB 375, to pass in Sacramento. “My resolution is almost a companion piece,” she said. “Sacramento is working on making changes to the state ed code.”

If passed, it would be hard to say whether the new bill will really expel the guilty more efficiently, or just oust the unwanted at a faster pace. “That machine has picked up its speed,” said Isenberg, “It’s not waiting three or four years, it’s getting rid of teachers as quickly as possible now.”

Siegel has been looking for a new job since her dismissal from LAUSD in February. But she said it is almost impossible to be a teacher again. The only offer she has so far is a salesman position.

She said she will continue her appeal. “I already lost everything. To me, it’s not about winning or losing, it’s about the principle of not to take down teachers who are supposed to be respected professionals and not to treat us like trash,” said Siegel.


Reach reporter Evie Liu here



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