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LAUSD Rubber Rooms Crowd Up 

Denials and confessions by those in teacher jail

Thursday, Dec 6 2012
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On the outskirts of LAUSD's sprawling, mazelike Educational Service Center in Reseda sit seven long, shabby, peach-colored bungalows with barred windows and rotting wood, which all but scream Southern California public education.

In one of them is a roughly 35-square-foot room where 25 or so teachers (and a couple of teacher's assistants) sit at cubicles. They read, listen to music, watch Netlfix on smartphones, play scrabble on Facebook. One sits with his feet up and his head tilted back toward the pockmarked ceiling, fast asleep, snoring loudly through a gaping mouth. The other teachers laugh. His head jerks up and he looks around, takes a swing from a quart of Donald Duck orange juice and goes back to sleep.

They are teachers in teacher jail, known more popularly as rubber rooms, and the aim is to keep them out of classrooms while allegations against them are investigated.

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Not everybody spends their time so idly during the average 127 days that each one sits, drawing full salaries that average $67,000 a year. One teacher practices the trumpet in the parking lot; another works on her dissertation for a doctorate in education. A Congolese immigrant who knows seven languages is using her time to learn an eighth — Korean.

But mostly, these teachers sit around and commiserate, a cross between a 12-step group and detention.

"A lot of us are good teachers," says Carrie Collier, a special ed teacher at Van Nuys Elementary who's been "housed" at the Education Service Center North since Sept. 10. "I know there's no reason for you to believe that — like, 'all inmates in a prison are innocent.' " She was accused by a teacher's aide of nearly closing a door on two rowdy special-needs students and of corralling another student against a wall using a wheeled table.

Some 300 LAUSD employees now sit in five rubber rooms scattered around L.A. First revealed in 2009 by the Los Angeles Times, the rubber rooms take their nickname from much larger facilities that house New York City teachers who have been accused of wrongdoing or serious incompetence.

The rubber-room day is short, 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. But some teachers now are being paid to simply stay at their own homes — because the number of L.A. educators under investigation is roughly twice that of a year ago.

The big explosion in rubber-room population came after popular Miramonte Elementary School teacher Mark Berndt was charged last January with 23 acts of molesting young LAUSD students — including feeding his students cookies covered with his semen. Just days later, LAUSD revealed that in October 2011, third-grade teacher Paul Chapel at Pacoima's Telfair Elementary School was arrested for abusing 13 small children from 2006 to 2011.

Berndt awaits trial, a symbol to many of what happens under California's byzantine state laws that make it hard to fire bad, or even dangerous, teachers.

Chapel, by contrast to Berndt — who refused to step down at Miramonte and could not be easily fired — agreed to a plea deal. So Chapel has already been convicted and sentenced to 25 years in prison.

After Berndt made global headlines as one of the most horrific California teachers in memory, the district aggressively spread the word about what parents, students and other teachers should look for in "appropriate" and "inappropriate" teacher behavior. LAUSD general counsel David Holmquist says that, as a result, "We're seeing more reporting. We really see that as a positive thing."

Almost as shocking as Berndt's alleged sex perversion was the fact that LAUSD kept the Berndt scandal quiet. Instead of warning parents and moving to fire Berndt — a nightmarish process that could have let Berndt cling to his job for years — LAUSD quietly paid him $40,000 to go away.

A state audit released last week revealed that out of 429 cases of alleged misconduct, LAUSD failed to promptly report at least 144 to the Commission on Teacher Credentialing, which can revoke a teacher's license but rarely does. LAUSD sat on 31 of those allegations for three years. In one case, a teacher drew a student into a sex relationship but LAUSD officials failed to alert anyone for nearly four years.

LAUSD Superintendent John Deasy says that before the state audit came out, he had already reformed LAUSD's lackadaisical system. Now, Deasy says, accusations of teacher wrongdoing must be reported to parents within 72 hours.

When a teacher, administrator or assistant is accused — say, of showing up to work drunk, or touching a child in an inappropriate manner — that person is supposed to be immediately reassigned to a rubber room while district officials investigate.

It's a costly system in which teachers draw their full salary, plus free health care and other benefits provided under teachers union contracts, and a substitute teacher earning salary and benefits of $283 to $352 a day takes over their class for them.

Many of those at teacher jail in Reseda refused to give their names, saying the district might try to fire them, and that Deasy, who typically moves in a bold and decisive manner, is overreacting. One teacher, claiming that Deasy is stuffing the rubber rooms with teachers because he is guilt-ridden, remarks, "Mr. Deasy has decided that all normal human contact must be reported — because he didn't report Miramonte."

Special-ed teacher Collier says Deasy, who has clashed repeatedly with the huge, 35,000-member United Teachers Los Angeles, is on a witch hunt to "thin the ranks of high-paid teachers."

Deasy denies this. But he does say, proudly, that more certificated employees are being fired for misconduct then ever, in a district where firings have been rare.

Deasy says that 96 certified employees, mostly teachers, were fired in 2011-2012.

Explains Deasy. "If there is suspected wrongdoing, we separate the employee [from the students], and then we investigate. Do [we] err on the side of safety? Darn right."

Holmquist concedes that innocent teachers have "been pulled" from their classrooms and then returned "with apologies." But, he says, "If the safety of our students is No. 1, we have to act like it."

California state laws are stacked heavily against firing teachers. A 2012 law by state Sen. Alex Padilla designed to more easily fire teachers who commit sexual, physically abusive or drug-related acts with students, Senate Bill 1530, went down in flames when four Democrats, fearing the power of the California Teachers Association and UTLA, infamously declined to vote, thus killing the bill.

Thanks to existing law, it costs LAUSD $500,000 in legal fees and salaries to oust a teacher who decides to fight back. It can cost up to $1.6 million to fire a single teacher.

In the rubber room in Reseda, most employees willing to talk said the charges against them were trumped up, or that they didn't know why they were there.

But one teacher seemed to have a pretty good case. She showed L.A. Weekly an Oct. 31 letter from her principal that stated, in part, "The conclusion of my investigation is that the allegation made by the parents is unsubstantiated." But she's still in the rubber room.

"I would have done the same thing that my principal did," the teacher says, because a parent accused her of spanking a preschool student, which is against state law. But the student and witnesses denied the student was spanked, according to the principal's letter. "I should've been here two days," the frustrated teacher said.

Of course, not every teacher in teacher jail is wrongly accused. Clay Geilfuss, 66, a kindergarten teacher, admits to improperly spanking a very young student "out of frustration." Says Geilfuss, "I blew it. ... Nobody's perfect. To think that teachers are beyond reproach is silly."

He'd like more counseling for stressed-out teachers. "In the past, if something had gotten to the principal, it would've been handled at his level. Now it's like the big shots are trying to micromanage things."

But the old way in LAUSD allowed horrible people who never should have been near children to remain in classrooms for years.

For now, it seems, the LAUSD rubber rooms will do a brisk business.

Reach the writer at haron@laweekly.com

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