LA District Tries To Restore Trust In School

Published February 8, 2012 1:18AM (EST)

LOS ANGELES (AP) — When students return to the school where two teachers were jailed last week for alleged lewdness, they'll have new teachers in their classrooms, a new principal in the front office and new workers serving lunch.

In a move that experts said was unprecedented, the entire 120-member staff at Miramonte Elementary School will be replaced as of Thursday after a two-day school shutdown as part of Los Angeles Unified School District's investigation into the two veteran teachers arrested last week.

"It's the most severe action I've seen taken by a school district," said Terri Miller, president of Stop Educator Sexual Abuse, Misconduct and Exploitation, an advocacy organization based in Las Vegas.

The move by administrators Monday evening was a bold step by the district to restore parents' badly shaken confidence at the school, but it was met with mixed feelings.

It came after about three dozen people protested in front of the main doors of the school earlier Monday, some carrying a banner that read, "We the parents demand our children be protected from lewd teacher acts." It also followed a march later in the day, in which 100 angry parents marched from the elementary school to the nearby administrators meeting.

Some parents applauded when the decision was announced, while several dozen protested outside the school Tuesday morning and circulated a petition calling for the staff to be reinstated.

Mother Maria Jimenez said some parents would at least like to have been notified that this was being considered as many feel it's drastic. "They did this without advising us or consulting us," she said.

Parents handed Superintendent John Deasy Monday night a petition with 400 signatures calling for open doors and allowing parents to observe classrooms and act as hall monitors.

But they did not want good teachers removed, said Martha Escutia, a lawyer and former state senator who is helping parents to organize a group named Mothers of Miramonte.

"This is not being very well received," Escutia said. "Some kids have established close relationships with their teachers."

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said he supported Superintendent John Deasy's decision to replace the staff.

"I think we need to do everything we can to make sure these kids, these students and their families, get the help that they need and to get to the bottom of how this happened," he said.

More than a quarter of students did not show up for class on Monday and a number of parents pulled children out of the school on Friday after news broke of a teacher arrested on a charge of fondling a second-grader, four days after a third-grade teacher was accused of 23 lewd acts including feeding children his semen in a bizarre "tasting game."

The school board on Tuesday voted unanimously to fire the teacher arrested Friday, Martin Springer, 49. He has 30 days to file an appeal.

The other teacher, Mark Berndt, 61, was fired in January 2011 after the district learned of a sheriff's department probe. He appealed and resigned six months later.

Miramonte's old staff will continue being paid and will be housed at an undisclosed location at least until August while each person is thoroughly interviewed, Superintendent John Deasy said.

Replacing teaching staffs at schools has been done in LAUSD and other schools, but in cases of chronically low academic performance. Teachers usually must reapply for their jobs, and the turnover does not also extend to support staff.

It's unclear whether any staffers will return to Miramonte. On Tuesday, they were packing up their classroom belongings to head to a nearby newly constructed school that is unoccupied, district spokesman Tom Waldman said.

"They thought making a clean break was the only way to get this under control," said John E.B. Myers, a professor at Pacific McGeorge School of Law in Sacramento who has studied abuse cases.

The new principal will be a retired principal, while the rest of the new staffers, including some 90 teachers, are former district personnel who were laid off due to budget cuts in recent years, the district said.

Deasy said the new staff members are being vigorously screened for any previous complaints against them. Each of the approximately 90 teachers will be accompanied in class by a psychiatric social worker to address possible issues caused by the scandal and the midyear disruption.

The cost of the plan has not yet been determined, but Deasy said he was sparing no expense to understand how the abuse occurred over some years and no one reported it.

The district's investigation, which will be handled by an independent commission led by retired California Supreme Court Chief Justice Carlos Moreno, will include interviewing past students and staff at Miramonte.

School sex abuse expert Mary Jo McGrath, an attorney who has conducted some 350 abuse investigations, said the investigation could uncover more cases.

"It's not a witch hunt, it's just that someone is really looking," she said. "Cases start unpeeling like an onion. It's always the same pattern."

Teachers need to receive extensive training in spotting the red flags that could indicate a colleague is engaging in inappropriate conduct with children, as well how to find the courage to speak up against a colleague, especially longtime veterans, McGrath said.

Frequent meetings with children after school, locked doors, taking kids on trips can all be signs that something is going on.

"There are definite indicators in other staff members being off," said McGrath, a Santa Barbara-based consultant.

United Teachers Los Angeles said in a statement that union leaders have met with Miramonte teachers and support the investigation.

"It's everyone's responsibility to ensure that any and all allegations are thoughtfully and carefully investigated," the union said.

The alleged abuse came to light last Monday night when Berndt was arrested.

Berndt is charged with committing lewd acts on children, ages 6 to 10, between 2005 and 2010. The alleged acts include blindfolding children, feeding them semen, taping their mouths, and photographing them in a "game."

Berndt, who worked at the school for 32 years, remains jailed on $23 million bail and could face life in prison if convicted.

The furor led to two parents coming forward Thursday to complain that Springer, who had worked at the school for 26 years, fondled two second-grade girls in his classroom.

Springer pleaded not guilty Tuesday after he was charged with committing lewd acts upon one girl in 2009. Bail was set at $300,000.

Investigators said they know of no connection between the men. Berndt and Springer took their classes on at least two joint field trips in the past decade, according to the Los Angeles Times.


Associated Press writer Robert Jablon contributed to this report.

By Salon Staff

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