- Voice of San Diego - https://www.voiceofsandiego.org -

How the Agency That Investigates Teacher Misconduct Plans to Dig Itself Out From a Mountain of Cases

Image via Shutterstock

The state agency that reviews cases of teacher misconduct knows it has issues.

Not only is the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing juggling more misconduct cases [1] than any point in at least a decade, the state attorney general’s office late last year flagged a handful of concerns [2] with how the agency operates.

The stakes are high: The case backload and other potential missteps by the commission can mean problem educators remain in classrooms, working with children.

Now, the agency is working its way through the attorney general’s concerns and holding discussions on how to move forward. Some of the solutions will have to come from the state Legislature.

“Right now really until we make some structural changes, all we’ve been able to do is work harder and are offering overtime to staff on weekends and asking the committee to take on all cases,” Joshua Speaks, a spokesman for the commission, said.

The AG’s big concerns: due process, efficiency and the safety of public school children.

The committee should prioritize cases related to misconduct in the classroom.

Currently, a subcommittee made up of seven volunteer teachers and administrators who meet once a month for three days, reviews every report presented to them by the commission.

In February, the commission reported the committee had 2,825 cases to review – ranging from educators who’d received repeated DUIs to those accused of sexual misconduct, and the number is growing.

The AG’s office believes the commission’s front-line staff should be given authority to work on cases that don’t directly involve schoolchildren, like when a teacher is charged with a repeat DUI. That would free up the committee to focus more on cases that involve teacher misconduct in the classroom, such as sexual misconduct committed against students and other employees.

The commission and the AG’s office have different legal standards to meet for each case.

When the commission determines a teacher’s credential should be revoked, things often don’t end there. The teacher can appeal the decision to the attorney general’s office and make a case to an administrative law judge.

But when the AG’s office weighs the case, it has to meet a higher legal standard to make the same call.

That’s what happened when the commission determined James Himmelsbach, an elementary school teacher in the Solana Beach School District [3], could have sexually harassed his colleagues based on the school district’s report he “repeatedly asked female employees on dates, engaged in unwelcome physical contact, made inappropriate comments about his sex life, female bodies and physical appearances and retaliated against employees.”

Himmelsbach appealed the commission’s determination his credential should be revoked, so his case went on to the AG’s office.  The AG’s office had to further investigate the claims to make sure there was a clear and convincing reasonable certainty they happened – a higher standard.

If there’s not enough evidence, the case may have to go back to the commission to investigate further, which in turn, lengthens the process.

After Himmelsbach was forced out of Carmel Creek Elementary School, he was able to find work in the Del Mar Union Elementary school district during the commission’s four-year adjudication process.

Educators being investigated by the commission regularly stay in the classroom for two and a half years or more – the median is 888 days. California takes a median 395 days to review a case and the AG’s office takes a median 493 days [4] to do its work.

Every single allegation against a teacher has to be presented to the committee, even when one is more egregious than the other.

If a teacher is accused of raping a student, like eighth-grade teacher Josh French was at Mission Middle School in Escondido [5], the committee could potentially impose immediate discipline.

But if a teacher is accused of rape and, say, also had a repeat DUI reported to the commission, the agency would have to investigate both – extending the process.

The attorney general’s office says that rule delays the already lengthy disciplinary process.

Only certain people are allowed to report misconduct to the commission.

Today, the commission can only accept reports from people with firsthand knowledge of misconduct, such as a student or employee who was directly harmed by an educator.

Allowing the commission to accept reports from a broader pool – including parents of victims, and school employees who hear of a co-worker harming a student, for instance – would allow the commission to look into more cases.

Speaks said it is particularly problematic that parents cannot report misconduct without having to involve the child who was directly affected. He said some parents decide not to report issues because they do not want their child to have to relive what happened to them.

Of course, allowing more people to report misconduct would mean the already overburdened commission would get far more cases. The commission’s executive director, Mary Vixie Sandy, said last year that the commission was not designed to handle the 5,895 cases it received last year.

Speaks said that’s why the commission isn’t likely to pursue a change to the reporting requirements for now.

“We would not propose a change like that in legislation unless we also let the Legislature know that we would require additional staff of people to handle the workload,” he said.

The commission and the AG’s office need to get on the same page about teacher discipline.

The AG’s office and the commission are working together to create a set of guidelines that streamline the disciplinary process for teachers.

The commission is one of the few professional licensing agencies that does not already have disciplinary guidelines, Thomas Lazar, a deputy attorney general, pointed out at a February meeting in which the commission presented a draft policy [6].

The commission was set to vote to adopt the draft, but faced scrutiny from teacher’s unions for what they said was a lack of collaboration in creating them.

Danette Brown, a representative from the California Teachers Association, said she is not opposed to the idea of disciplinary guidelines, but was troubled they were drafted without conversation with stakeholders.

As a result of the backlash, the commission released a memo Thursday calling for members of the public and stakeholders to submit feedback [7] on the proposed guidelines.

Looking Forward

The credentialing commission said it plans to pursue state legislation this year to help it improve – but it doesn’t know what it will entail. Since the deadline to introduce new bills has already passed, Assemblyman Patrick O’Donnell introduced [8] what’s called a spot bill – essentially a placeholder until the real bill is written.

“We don’t have legislative language yet, but we’re looking into ways to reduce the workload on the committee and to look at our process and figure out how we can send a more finished product over to the attorney general’s office,” Speaks said.