California’s Brown Rejects Bill to Streamline Teacher Firing

California Governor Jerry Brown has vetoed a bill designed to streamline firing of teachers accused of misconduct. Despite a desire to make it easier to process the termination of teachers involved in criminal offenses, the governor termed the bill as an “imperfect” union-backed bill and called on lawmakers to try again next year.

The bill, AB375 by Assemblywoman Joan Buchanan, D-Alamo, was approved by lawmakers last year in the wake of the case at Miramonte Elementary School in which teacher Mark Berndt was removed from his post for allegedly spoonfeeding bodily fluids to his students in addition to taking bondage photos of the children in the classroom during school hours.

Berndt had been a teacher at the Miramonte Elementary School for more than 30 years. According to the district attorney’s office, Berndt was charged with committing lewd acts with 23 boys and girls ages 6 to 10.

Authorities found about 40 photographs that showed blindfolded children in a classroom with their mouths taped shut. Some of the photos were explicitly graphic with some of the implements depicted in them later being tested positive for semen.

The Los Angeles Unified School District paid $40,000 to Berndt to resign instead of appealing a decision to dismiss him, which has also allowed him to keep his entitlement to lifetime health benefits.

Also, the district settled with parents of Berndt’s sex abuse victims for $30 million. Under the settlement, the school district agreed to pay nearly each family in the group action, which represented about half the victims.

Brown applauded some of the proposed changes in Buchanan’s bill, including provisions that would let school districts file disciplinary complaints during summer recesses and eliminate some other hurdles that can delay discipline and dismissals. But he said in a veto message that other portions of the bill, which was supported by the California Teachers Association, “make the process too rigid and could create new problems.”

Brown said provisions limiting testimony in disciplinary hearings and preventing school districts from amending complaints based on new evidence “may do more harm than good.” According to Brown, the bill needs more work to produce a balanced but simplified disciplinary process.

In a statement, Buchanan said the bill was the product of exhaustive negotiation and her own 18 years of experience on school boards that would have created a fair and efficient process while reducing the cost and time required for dismissal hearings.

The bipartisan education reform organization StudentsFirst California issued a statement calling the bill “a poor, rushed attempt” that would have made it more complicated to dismiss teachers accused of abusing children.

Senate Minority Leader Bob Huff, R-Diamond Bar, termed it “an underhanded attempt to protect even the worst abusers from being held accountable when they prey on our students.”

According to California Teachers Association President Dean Vogel, the bill “presented a great opportunity to take a big step in streamlining the dismissal process to keep students safe, safeguard the integrity of the profession and protect the rights of educators.”

In addition, the governor signed AB256 that allows superintendents and school principals to discipline students who engage in cyberbullying, using computers, smartphones and social media to intimidate or harass others on or off the school campus.