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California Agency To Crack Down on Educators Failing To Report Abuse

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A growing number of well-publicized child-abuse cases involving California educators has led the state's credentialing agency to assert it will "take a hard line" on disciplining teachers and administrators who fail to report suspected child abusers in schools.

The response by the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing came this month following the news that the Los Angeles District Attorney is investigating allegations that a number of district administrators and teachers at a local public school waited as long as a year before reporting to the appropriate authorities that they suspected one of their colleagues of molesting more than a dozen of his 3rd-grade students.

At the request of the district attorney's office, the Los Angeles Unified School District has turned over the names of 15 individuals who may have had some involvement in the case, according to William C. Rivera, assistant to the superintendent.

They include the principal, vice principal, staff nurse, and other faculty members of the 68th Street Elementary School; the superintendent of the school's regional office; and two high-level district officials. Although none have been charged, at least six of the individuals have been subpoenaed to appear before the grand jury at the close of the investigation, according to Mr. Rivera.

Under California law, failure to report child abuse is a misdemeanor that carries a penalty of a $500 fine or six months in jail.

The teacher-credentialing commission's policy threatens teachers who fail to report suspected abuse with penalties ranging from an admonition to dismissal, said Walter Taylor, professional-standards officer with the commission. "If the holder of a credential is under a duty to report child abuse that he knows about or reasonably suspects and3fails to do so," he added, "then there's a pretty good case for unprofessional conduct, which is grounds for disciplinary action."

The 68th Street School allegations center on Terry E. Bartholome, a former teacher at the school who has been ordered to stand trial on charges of rape, child molesting, and 10 misdemeanor counts of lewd conduct, according to Deputy District Attorney Rita A. Stapleton.

The abuses, alleged to have taken place from November 1983 to December 1984, were investigated by Los Angeles police at the request of the school district's security unit, Ms. Stapleton explained.

Mr. Bartholome, 48, was advised by the district in December that dismissal procedures were under way, and he resigned in February. He was arrested on May 31 and is in custody on $200,000 bail.

Arraignment in Los Angeles Superior Court is scheduled for Aug. 20. At that time, Ms. Stapleton said, she plans to add an unspecified number of counts based on the testimony of 17 students at the preliminary hearing.

Attempts to reach Mr. Bartholome's lawyer were unsuccessful.

When Mr. Bartholeme began teaching at the 68th Street School in January 1983, the school's principal, Alice McDonald, was told that he had been transferred from another school because of child-abuse allegations there, according to Mr. Rivera. She was told to "watch him closely'' and report any signs that he was involved in abusive actions, he said.

Ms. McDonald made at least two reports to the regional school-district office--once in November 1983 and again in March 1984--regarding alleged child-abuse activities involving Mr. Bartholome. In November 1984, a parent filed a related complaint, which triggered the district's investigation, Mr. Rivera said.

Among the questions the district attorney's office is attempting to an-swer are whether Ms. McDonald fulfilled her obligation to report suspected abuse by filing those reports, and what responsibility the regional staff had in reporting her allegations to the proper officials.

District policy requires that school employees who suspect abuse report their suspicions in a telephone call and in writing to the appropriate child-protective agency and law-enforcement units. School principals are provided with the names, addresses, and phone numbers of those agencies.

There is also some concern that other school employees failed to report the abuse and tried to cover up their failure to respond, according to Al Albergate, spokesman for the district attorney's office.

Calling the allegations of a cover-up among school employees "appalling," Wayne Johnson, president of United Teachers-Los Angeles, recently reminded the union's 32,000 members of their obligation to report ''even suspected child abuse."

And the Los Angeles Board of Education, while voting this month against making major changes in the district's child-abuse-reporting policies, approved a recommendation that all employees of the district sign a statement indicating they have been advised of the child-abuse-reporting law.

The California credentialing panel, which licenses both teachers and administrators, has not yet heard any cases involving failure to report, Mr. Taylor said, but may be asked to consider allegations involving the 68th Street School and the Fremont School District.

In the Fremont case, a committee of the credentialing commission recommended earlier this year that the administrative credentials of a superintendent, a principal, and two vice principals be revoked in light of allegations that they failed to take appropriate action to report or stop known abuse, Mr. Taylor said. The case has just gone to court.

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