Local News

Saturday, Feb 20 2010 12:00 PM

Teachers challenge fairness of administrative leave policies

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    By Michael Fagans / The Californian

    Shannon Robinson, a sixth-grade teacher at Curran Middle School, sits along the bus loading area on Friday afternoon in Bakersfield. Robinson was placed on paid administrative leave after breaking up a fight between two female students in the bus area last year.

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BY JORGE BARRIENTOS, Californian staff writer jbarrientos@bakersfield.com

A fight broke out among two students last year, and Shannon Robinson was the only teacher around.

She broke it up, then was placed on paid administrative leave, tarnishing her reputation, she said.

Why? Robinson said she didn't know until well later when she learned a student had told administrators Robinson pushed him and used racial slurs.

Robinson, who said that wasn't true, is one of several teachers who say student accusations, and the school district habit of punishing teachers immediately following allegations, make school staff feel helpless. It's the student's word against the teacher's, and students always win, they say.

"Teachers are scared to death some kid is going to make up a story on them and they'll be gone," said Robinson, who teaches at Curran Middle School. "They don't realize what it does to teachers. It's devastating."

District officials say they're just trying to protect kids.

STUDENTS, TEACHERS

Robinson, a middle school teacher in the Bakersfield City School District for 13 years, was asked to leave the campus and stay away from school functions indefinitely while district officials investigated the allegations. She heard nothing during the investigation, then was asked to return to class a month later, she said.

Robinson told her students, who asked her why she was gone, that there was a misunderstanding.

In reality, Robinson, other teachers and teacher associations who backed her believe the Bakersfield City School District has a tendency to automatically place teachers on paid administrative leave anytime a student accusation is made.

This, they believe, makes them look guilty before an investigation is ever started.

"This really leaves teachers in a vulnerable situation," said Phillip Brown of the local California Teachers Association branch, which represented Robinson.

Districts throughout the state, including BCSD, follow education code requiring they report suspected student abuse as soon as possible. It's up to school leaders, however, to decide whether an employee should be removed.

Allegations sexual in nature usually get an automatic removal, according to state and local policies. In other instances, like annoyances, removal is decided case-by-case.

The teacher does not have to be automatically removed from the classroom solely based on the reporting of an allegation, said Julie Slayton, a full time associate professor of clinical education at the University of Southern California and former director for research, planning and policy analysis for the Los Angeles Unified School District.

But if schools have a reason to be concerned harm has occurred, or is occurring, the school can remove a teacher and place him or her on leave.

"The first step is to protect the child over the adult," Slayton said. "The second is to investigate as quickly as possible to determine if the assertions can be substantiated."

Bakersfield City officials wouldn't discuss specific cases, citing privacy rights. Because they can't speak to specifics, officials said, stories in the media are typically one-sided and don't accurately portray what happened.

"In general, after consulting with legal counsel, an employee subject to allegations of misconduct is placed on paid administrative leave pending the outcome of the investigation into the allegations," the district said in a statement.

Every situation is different, BCSD said, and the facts of each case determine whether a teacher is placed on leave.

Additionally, the district said teachers are removed so "an investigation can proceed without possible allegations of attempted intimidation of witnesses by the accused employee, and in some cases to protect the accused employee from possible acts of retribution" by accusers.

Policies say employees temporarily removed will be "presumed innocent pending the outcome of the investigation and will have all appropriate due process rights."

NOT ALWAYS GUILTY

The problem, several teachers interviewed for this report say, is that teachers accused are automatically removed following any student allegations, and many times officials find no wrongdoing.

Last year, a sixth-grade teacher in the Bakersfield City School District was cited for battery after a student said she pulled a student's hair. She was placed on paid administrative leave while the district investigated. The Kern County District Attorney's office decided not to pursue criminal charges.

She later returned to work, but not before the allegations were publicized throughout local media. She didn't return calls and e-mails seeking comment for this story.

Sexual battery charges were dropped in 2005 against a BCSD middle school teacher accused of touching students inappropriately. He was placed on leave and at the time of the allegations told The Californian "I didn't do anything to deserve this kind of treatment."

He couldn't be reached for comment this past week.

District officials have acknowledged in the past that once a teacher's name is associated with inappropriate behavior, it's almost impossible to shake it, even after charges are dismissed.

Of course, some teachers have in fact done wrong.

In 2007, Shafter High School chemistry teacher Jeff Scheidemantel was arrested on suspicion of trying to make methamphetamine in his school lab. He was sentenced to nine months in jail after being convicted of manufacturing meth.

Also that year, Garces Memorial High School teacher Marshall David Neal was arrested on suspicion of engaging in oral sex with a minor student. He pleaded no contest to oral copulation, was sentenced to a year in jail and registered as a sex offender.

Administrators in several districts said they take accusations seriously. Teachers are removed to conduct investigations properly, they say.

"We find that it's best, rather than to have teachers dealing with it, to remove them from the situation," said Gerrie Kincaid, assistant superintendent of educational services at Panama-Buena Vista Union School District. "We typically remove the teacher and hear all sides, so they're not confronted by rumors and attacks."

Kincaid added that not every allegation results in teachers being put on leave. Officials investigate claims before action is taken. It's only usually automatic when the accusations involve substance abuse or are sexual and physical in nature, she said.

ON LEAVE

Currently, according to the Bakersfield Elementary Teachers Association, about six BCSD teachers are on administrative leave. Last semester, there were about 10. Most of those involve student accusations of contact with teachers.

"Those pretty much send the teacher out as soon as the statements are made," Brown said.

Teacher associations officials are also concerned about the costs associated with placing teachers on leave. Teachers receive their normal pay while on leave; in one active case a teacher's been on leave three months and counting.

A substitute must be paid while regular teachers are on leave.

Kern High School District officials said they investigate accusations before placing teachers on paid administrative leave.

"We don't put teachers on paid administrative leave as soon as someone registers a complaint," said John Teves, district spokesman. "But if there is merit, we have that option."

Mitch Olson, Kern High School Teachers Association head, said he has not heard complaints from teachers in the district about leave policies.

"I would actually defend our district on that," Olson said. "There's a pretty good investigation that occurs to figure out if there's any merit of allegations before the district puts anyone on administrative leave."

He added that KHSD has uniformed officers to conduct investigations and is also responsible for overseeing fewer schools than districts like BCSD.

"But if teachers did what they're accused of, then we don't want them by students," Olson said.

Robinson said she hopes schools and districts take student accusations more seriously -- for students and teachers alike.

"Any kid can make an accusation. It doesn't cost anything to do that," Robinson said. "But it ends up costing teachers a lot."

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