Sexual abuse of students: What has Los Angeles done to stop it? (+video)

A new sexual abuse case involving a longtime Los Angeles teacher and, allegedly, 20 young students renews focus on record of reform in the nation's second largest school district. The case signals progress in more timely reporting of such allegations and swift notification of parents.

By , Staff writer

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    Elementary students' parents leave a meeting with school officials at the George De La Torre Jr. Elementary in the Wilmington area of Los Angeles on Jan. 24, after a teacher who worked for nearly 40 years in the Los Angeles Unified School District was arrested on suspicion of sexually abusing students at the school.
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The arrest of Robert Pimentel, a longtime fourth-grade teacher accused of sexually abusing 20 students, has once again thrust the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) into the spotlight.

The case prompts questions about how much progress has been made since another district teacher was charged a year ago for lewd conduct with more than 20 young students.

The district has made several policy changes in the past year, and advocates for abuse victims hope that attention to the issue will prompt further changes throughout California, and even nationally.

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“I’m seeing more reporting of [such] incidents around the county.... Now we need to train and teach so that it doesn’t keep happening,” says Charol Shakeshaft, a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Va., and an expert witness on behalf of a student who was molested by a teacher and recently won a $6.9 million in a jury verdict against LAUSD. “There are lots of ways to see and stop [student abuse] early,” she says.

Law enforcement officials began investigating Mr. Pimentel in March, after several girls told their parents that he had touched them inappropriately at the George De La Torre Jr. Elementary School in Wilmington, Calif.

The district responded quickly – one result of improvements made since last year’s shocking allegations of abuse at Miramonte Elementary School.

Pimentel was immediately removed from the school last March, and, based on the new rules, the district notified parents of the allegations within 72 hours. The California Commission on Teacher Credentialing was also notified quickly.

Before the Board of Education could take action to dismiss Pimentel, he retired. He is being held on $12 million bail. The Los Angeles Times reports that the principal of the school was immediately removed, because the LAUSD superintendent was dissatisfied with how the incident had been handled. The principal had not properly reported allegations of misconduct by this teacher that arose in 2008, according to this report.

In November, a report by the California State Auditor found that many cases of employee misconduct against students had been reported to the credentialing commission a year or more later than they should have been. It also raised concerns about the time that elapsed between an investigation unit reporting on an allegation and the principal taking action against the teacher – eight months in one case.

The audit found that LAUSD has had to spend $3 million in salaries on the 20 employees who have been relocated from classroom sites for the longest periods of time because of allegations of sexual misconduct against students.

The district has taken steps to address such concerns, including many launched before the audit’s release. Among them:

  • Training last February districtwide helped employees and parents learn how to identify and engage in discussions about suspected abuse. Each school site must receive biannual child-abuse awareness training as well.
  • Educational Service Centers in the district began to offer more specialists in each local area to advise school leaders on misconduct issues.
  • The district has been lobbying state legislators about the difficulties of dismissing teachers for misconduct. District officials say it costs on average $300,000 per teacher and can take years.

State Senate Bill 10, backed by the LAUSD school board, would make the process of firing school staff faster and more cost-effective when they have engaged in serious misconduct related to sexual abuse, drugs, or violence. It would also give final authority to local school boards rather than the state Commission on Professional Competence.

An earlier version of the bill passed the state Senate but died in the Assembly’s Education Committee last year. Sen. Alex Padilla (D) sponsored both bills.

In a statement about the original bill, which has not been significantly changed, the California Teachers Association issued a statement saying it “guts teacher due process rights by removing the accused employee’s ability to be heard before a neutral panel and replacing it with an advisory-only hearing before a single administrative law judge. The school board then has the authority to accept the judge’s decision, or reject it and commence a new hearing where they will determine the outcome.”

The union also said the focus on removal proceedings diverted attention that should instead be placed on LAUSD’s “failures to follow the law and their own policies,” when allegations first arose in the Miramonte case.

In supporting SB10, the LAUSD board noted in its statement that while the majority of teachers “are competent and caring professionals committed to the safety and academic success of all students … [i]n balancing the safety of our students against the rights of adults, children always come first.”

Thirty-four states empower school boards with dismissal authority, according to a fact sheet from Senator Padilla’s office.

As a result of the high-profile cases in Los Angeles and last year’s audit, “I am really hoping that … California is really going to close any loophole that affords protections to any predator in school and protects children instead,” says Terri Miller, president of Stop Educator Sexual Abuse, Misconduct, and Exploitation, based in Las Vegas.

Already, several factors in California make it easier to protect students from abuse than in some other parts of the country, Ms. Miller says. For instance, the age of consent for sexual conduct is 18 in California, but 16 in many other states, and some states don’t prohibit sexual contact between educators and students if the student is over the age of consent or if the contact occurs off of school property.

Victims can file a complaint directly with the credentialing commission in California. Even in cases when the abuse took place 20 years ago or the accused had retired, her group has had success getting educators’ licenses revoked, Miller says.

On a national scale, Rep. Michael Fitzpatrick (R) of Pennsylvania has backed the Jeremy Bell Act, which would bring fines or prison time to a school employer who facilitates a former employee getting a job in another state if he or she has engaged in sexual misconduct with someone under age 18.

Associated Press material was used in this report.

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