From Kyung Lah, CNN
Editor’s note: The following story contains graphic language and descriptions.
LOS ANGELES (CNN) – Allegations of lewd acts committed by a teacher on students in a Los Angeles-area elementary school sent shockwaves across the community last year.
But the outrage didn’t end there. Amid a year-long police investigation involving dozens of photos showing the alleged acts, the school district — faced with strict state rules — could not fire the teacher.
Instead, it paid him $40,000 to quit his job.
Police arrested Mark Berndt, 61, in January and charged him with 23 felony counts stemming from allegations that he bound young students and then photographed them with semen-filled spoons held at their mouths and 3-inch cockroaches crawling across their faces.
Investigators believe the children didn’t realize that they were being victimized, thinking they were playing a game.
Berndt pleaded not guilty to the charges and is being held on $23 million bail while he awaits trial, expected next year.
The Los Angeles Unified School District found itself caught between protecting children and protecting the legal rights of a teacher who had been accused of — but not formally charged with — serious crimes against children.
Under California’s due process for teachers, the school district could have kept Berndt on paid administrative leave, but it would have had to engage in lengthy legal wrangling to remove him from his position. That process could have taken months, even years, and there are no exceptions for teachers accused of sex crimes against children.
Outraged by the Berndt case, California state Sen. Alex Padilla drafted a bill this year that would have allowed a faster way for schools to fire teachers accused of the most heinous crimes against children.
“We were very specific to those serious and egregious crimes,” Padilla said of the bill. “Sex, drugs, violence involving students. These are no-brainers.”
While senators overwhelmingly voted in support of Senate Bill 1530, it was met with strong opposition from the powerful California Teachers Association.
The teachers’ union says that Padilla’s bill would have eliminated essential legal protections for teachers and that it believes the current system is an appropriate process.
In the halls of the state Capitol, Assemblymember Wilmer Amina Carter veered sharply away from CNN’s camera without stopping to answer questions about her refusal to cast a vote on Padilla’s bill.
Her aide swung a palm over the camera, saying, “no comment.”
Carter is one of 11 members of the California State Assembly Education Committee, which considered SB1530 after it passed the state Senate. The bill needed a simple majority from the committee before it could go on to the full Assembly.
But the bill failed by one vote. Four members — including Carter — were present but abstained from the vote.
“I think it’s spineless, and I think it’s gutless,” said former state Sen. Gloria Romero, who used to head the Education Committee.
“They go there to vote, not to remain silent when their name’s called. That, to me, is what’s disgusting,” said Romero, who now works to reform California’s educational system with Democrats for Education Reform.
By refusing to vote, Romero said, the lawmakers can avoid looking bad to their constituents while keeping the campaign contributions from California’s powerful education unions flowing. She said she believes the four lawmakers abstained “out of fear and intimidation that those campaign dollars will no longer flow their way.”
Those members of the Assembly’s Education Committee who voted “no” or didn’t cast a vote received more campaign contributions from teachers’ unions than their fellow committee members except the chairman, according to data from Maplight, which bills itself as a nonprofit, nonpartisan research group dedicated to looking at money’s influence on politics.
From January 2009 to May 2012, “teachers’ unions gave 5.4 times as much (campaign contributions) to the committee members who voted ‘no’ versus the ones who voted ‘yes,’ ” said Daniel Newman, Maplight’s co-founder and president. “The people who voted ‘yes’ got much less money than the people who voted ‘no’ and voted ‘no vote.’ You can see how the money correlates with the vote. It shows interest groups that invest in politics buy results.”
The California Teachers Association maintains that its campaign contributions to lawmakers were not the driving factor in convincing them to vote down or not vote on the measure. It described the bill as “unnecessary legislation that would have eroded (teachers’) rights during dismissal proceedings.”
But Newman says it’s all part of a corrupt system across the country in which lawmakers spend much of their time in office raising money for campaigns. That makes them have to bend to campaign contributions in the “corrupt system of money-dominated politics,” he said.
“This pattern of contribution is very similar on bill after bill, on topic after topic, whether it affects unions, banks, corporations,” he said. “On average, the lawmakers vote with the side that tends to give them the most money.”
All but one of the four assembly members refused repeated requests for comment about why they abstained from voting on the measure. Assemblymember Das Williams explained that he felt that “the bill was too much of an overreach” and he was concerned about its effect on teachers’ rights.
Williams said he is now working with Padilla to possibly revive the measure or create a similar measure that addresses his concerns.
But it could be too little too late for the Los Angeles school district, which is facing a lawsuit filed by the mothers of the 23 children at the center of the charges against Berndt.
The lawsuit, filed in July, seeks unspecified damages and school district reforms. It accuses the district of maintaining ” a practice and custom of maintaining a ‘Culture of Silence’ to hide teacher misconduct, and to ignore teacher misconduct.”