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Teachers Charged With Obtaining Phony Credits

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In an unprecedented move, the Los Angeles County district attorney's office brought criminal charges of grand theft last week against 43 public-school teachers who received salary increases based on fraudulently obtained college credits.

The teachers are accused of receiving salary increases averaging $3,000 annually for college-extension classes they never attended. The courses were offered under the auspices of California Lutheran College of Thousand Oaks and Ottawa University of Ottawa, Kan.

The two institutions, according to Denis K. Petty, a deputy district attorney in Los Angeles County who headed the two-year investigation, "are not suspected of any wrongdoing."

But the prosecutor's office is continuing to investigate Nick V. Giovinazzo, who organized the extension classes for the colleges on a commission basis; his wife, Lois, who helped to run the classes; and 42 other teachers in the Los Angeles area.

Pattern of Fraud

Affidavits filed by Mr. Petty in connection with search warrants he obtained to help in the investigation indicate a pattern of fraud going back 10 years. The investigation stemmed from a March 1980 probe of phony credits granted to college athletes in extension classes sponsored by the same two colleges.

Upon learning that teachers were earning credits--and raises--the same way, the prosecutors turned their attention to the extension classes in education.

According to Mr. Petty, the arrangement leading to the criminal charges worked this way: California Lutheran and Ottawa University hired Mr. Giovinazzo to organize the extension courses, hire instructors, arrange for classroom space, collect tuition, and keep records of enrollment and grades. At the end of the term, he was to submit to the colleges a list of students who participated and the grades they received.

"There were legitimate classes, taught by legitimate instructors, and attended by legitimate students," Mr. Petty stressed.

However, the prosecutor alleged, when an instructor turned in the grades, Mr. Giovinazzo then transferred the students' names and grades to a new sheet, added the names and "grades" of teachers who also paid tuition but never attended the classes, and forged the instructor's signature to the new document.

These altered records were forwarded to the colleges, which then granted the credits, making the teachers eligible for raises.

Neither Mr. Petty nor Lyn Gubser, executive director of the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (ncate), the largest accrediting body in teacher education, knew of any other cases in which criminal charges have been brought against teachers in such schemes, although Mr. Gubser said there had been incidents of credit fraud in Las Vegas, New York City, Philadelphia, and elsewhere.

Jail or Fine Possible

Thirty-one of the 43 teachers who have been charged are employed by the Los Angeles Unified School District, the nation's third-largest system. The others work for smaller districts in the Los Angeles area. If convicted, they could receive sentences of up to a year in jail or a $1,000 fine.

Another 35 teachers were given credit by their school systems for classes they did not attend, but did not receive salary increases, Mr. Petty said. No charges have been filed against this group.

Harry Handler, superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District, has appointed a team of administrators to direct the system's activities on the matter, according to a spokesman who asked not to be named.

The group includes a legal adviser, the heads of the personnel and staff-development divisions, and an assistant for career and continuing education.

"We are trying to work with the colleges and universities to prevent this kind of thing from happening again," the spokesman said. "We're trying to tighten up procedures, asking deans of colleges and universities to assess their procedures in awarding salary-point credits. We're cooperating with the D.A. in the investigation, which is still underway."

"It's not really a question of what the school district can do. It's really by working with colleges that this kind of fraudulent conduct can be eliminated."

Ottawa University has revoked the credits awarded to some teachers, including 10 from the Los Angeles school district, the district's spokesman said. The district will review each case individually, and each teacher will be afforded due process in any disciplinary action, he added.

About 20 of the accused teachers have asked the United Teachers of Los Angeles (utla) for help, said Michael B. Bennett, vice president of the union. Members are entitled to hire union lawyers at a reduced rate to defend them against criminal charges, Mr. Bennett said, and if dismissal is involved, legal services are free.

"Teachers have been tried and convicted before the trial," protested Judy Solkovits, president of the utla Ms. Solkovits pointed out that only 31 of the district's more than 28,000 teachers had been accused of any wrongdoing.

The union president added that she believed the colleges had done "everything they can to investigate," and that they had been cleared. Mr. Bennett, however, maintained that the colleges "should know what's going on."

The Los Angeles school district, under the terms of its contract with the utla, recognizes only credits from accredited institutions, according to Robert deVries, director of staff development.

The two colleges in question are accredited by their regional associations--California Lutheran by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, Ottawa by the North Central Association of Schools and Colleges. Neither college is accredited by ncate

The Los Angeles district expects 15 "contact" hours--hours actually spent in class--plus another 30 hours in outside preparation for each credit, Mr. deVries said. The standards of the Western Association call for the same amount of time spent in studies.

"Sometimes we suspect something is wrong and check it out," Mr. deVries said, but not in these instances. "We assume the accredited schools follow the policy of the Western Association."

In 1979, that association estab-lished as its policy that member-colleges are responsible for all activities leading to credit, said Ralph Wolff, associate executive director of the Western Association. Colleges may contract with non-accredited organizations for facilities or support services, but instruction in off-campus courses "has to be done by a staff member," Mr. Wolff said. "I think this will solve the problem."

A spokesman for the North Central Association declined to comment.

Mr. Gubser, of ncate, said the incident demonstrates the need for national accreditation of continuing-education programs for teachers, and for stricter state and local requirements of accountability.

"The sad plight of these teachers becomes even more tragic when you consider that had they only been aware of the professional reputation of these institutions, they might have avoided the situation," he said.

"It could have happened anywhere," he added. "There are probably not 10 states where there is sufficient legislation or policies governing extension programs or credit where this couldn't have occurred."

"Through national accreditation, such professional associations as the nea [National Education Association] maintain a review process that could have provided these teachers with information that would have protected them from just such a situation as that in which they are now caught, or it could have provided a complaint-review process that would have given them some recourse had the institutions been nationally accredited, which they are not," Mr. Gubser said.

"The kids need to be protected in those schools, even if it's the courts that have to do it. If the public isn't willing to let the profession do it, kids need be protected no matter who does it.

"The point that I'm trying to get at is that there will be a tendency once again to damn teachers when in fact the teaching profession has established machinery to try to keep this kind of thing from happening," he said.

However, spokesmen for the nea said the association has no specific policy on accreditation of continuing-education courses for teachers, although the group strongly advocates ncate accreditation of pre-service teacher-preparation programs. The spokesmen declined further comment until more about the Los Angeles incident is known.

Nor does the American Federation of Teachers have any formal standards for continuing education, according to Scott Widmeyer, a union spokesman.

"We encourage teachers to enhance their education," Mr. Widmeyer said. "Anything they can carry back and use in the classroom, we endorse. But when it comes to an individual basis like this, and taking Mickey Mouse courses that don't help in the classroom, we certainly don't endorse that."

The utla is the only local teachers' union in the country that is affiliated with both nea and aft

Correspondent George Neill contributed to this report.

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