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LAUSD unit investigating sexual abuse allegations hits 1 year mark

Craig Clough | January 30, 2015

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miramonte schoolIn the aftermath of the Miramonte Elementary sex abuse scandal, which has so far cost LA Unified roughly $170 million in settlements, was the creation of a special unit to handle all future sexual abuse allegations.

The Student Safety Investigative Team passed its one-year anniversary of active investigations on Jan. 7, and to date has investigated over 150 cases that have resulted in 32 district employees put under formal disciplinary review.

The team, made up of seven full-time investigators, a supervising investigator and two forensic specialists, is headed by Jose Cantu, a district veteran of 31 years, 14 of them as a principal.

“I’m the one that brings the school and district experience to the team so the team can undertand the rules and policies that the teachers are breaking when we are investigating,” he said.

Cantu’s team does not determine possible discipline or dismissal of employees but passes its reports on to the administration, which then decides the final outcome.

Of the investigators, four are former LAPD detectives, and one is a former Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department investigator. Cantu said he believes the unit is unique for a major school district. Other large districts, like New York, he said, have hired outside contractors for similar work, but all the members of his team are full-time LAUSD employees.

“There was nothing to look at before,” he said. “I think we are probably one of the first school districts to do this, so there wasn’t a template to go by. I’ve been learning on the job, and its been a great experience. I think we are really doing some really good things.”

The unit’s job is specifically focused on allegations of sexual abuse of students. When an allegation could be criminal, the district is required to pass it on to law enforcement — typically the police or sheriff’s department. But if no criminal charges are brought, the case goes back to the Student Safety Investigative Team, which can look for possible violations of district policy.

Law enforcement sometimes allows the LA Unified team to conduct a concurrent investigation.

Catching an employee violating district policy, even if it is does not rise to criminal behavior, is key to protecting students and preventing another Miramonte, Cantu said.

“If we look at policy violations — maybe a teacher is texting students innaporpriate stuff, or maybe inviting them to lunch, or something on their computer is not age appropriate — maybe we can get them on a policy violation before it rises to the level of something like Miramonte,” he said. “And that’s our job, to be preventive when there are policy violations. In the past, if there was an allegation, you usually can find a trail. It’s not a one time deal with some of these things, prior to the big thing happening.”

Cantu said that the unit has also helped accelerate law enforcement investigations, which in the past could drag on. With former detectives as part of the unit, they know who to call and what paper to push to get a case moving faster.

“We negotiate with them and are able to get the cases a lot sooner, and it has helped streamline the process, which is one of our big mandates,” Cantu said.

Cantu added that previously, sexual misconduct allegations would be investigated by principals.

“Myself, being a former principal, the demands you have at a school, it is difficult to do a serious investigation,” Cantu said.

One of the biggest points of contention between the district and its teachers union, UTLA, is the issue of so-called “teacher jail,” in which teachers accused of wrongdoing are pulled out of the classroom. They are sometimes made to work at district regional offices or simply sent home. At various times there have been hundreds of teachers forced into “jail,” and their cases have lingered for months, causing UTLA to call the process unfair and overused.

Teachers have been placed in “jail” for many reasons, not just sexual misconduct allegations. But Cantu said his unit has helped speed up the cases they have been handed. He said there has been talk about expanding the unit to handle all misconduct allegations, not just sexual ones.

“We have had the discussion that any employee that’s reassigned and taken out of their job should have a professional investigation done so that we can determine if there is some guilt there and if they can go back to their job,” Cantu said. “So there’s been some talk, yes.”

UTLA Presdient Alex Caputo-Pearl did not respond to a request to comment on the unit or its possible expansion. Cantu said the union has been quiet about his team’s work.

“We haven’t heard anything negative, not even from the union,” he said.

Cantu said there has also been talk of expanding the unit to look into old cases, but that it so far has only handled new allegations that have arisen since it started operations.

“There is talk of us helping with the old cases, but it is just talk at this point,” he said. “There has been talk that it might be beneficial to go back and look at some of them.”

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