LA School In Sex Abuse Scandal Reopens

Published February 9, 2012 7:54PM (EST)

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Children returned Thursday to an elementary school where the entire staff was replaced after the arrests of two former teachers on charges of committing lewd acts with students in class.

Hundreds of students streamed through the front doors under the eyes of school police and some 100 protesters, who opposed the disruption of removing everyone from the principal to the custodian for the rest of the school year.

The protesters, who included parents and students at Miramonte Elementary School, held signs bashing the Los Angeles Unified School District, proclaiming "Give us our teachers back," and "LAUSD Shame on You." Children chanted "No new teachers."

"It's kind of hard," said Lorena Soriano, whose sixth-grader attends Miramonte. "You barely know your teacher, and they're gone. The kids don't know what's going on."

The school held an assembly for parents to meet the new principal, but some parents emerged dissatisfied, saying the district went overboard in removing all teachers.

"My son liked his teacher," said Jose Vargas, shaking his head. "Why don't they put cameras in the classrooms?"

The case of a third-grade teacher accused of feeding children his semen during bizarre tasting games in his classroom over a five-year period has sparked outrage and roiled the nation's second-largest school district.

In an unprecedented move, the district closed the school on Tuesday and Wednesday to completely replace the 120-member staff.

Superintendent John Deasy said the move was necessary to restore trust among parents in the largely poor, Latino neighborhood of unincorporated Los Angeles County.

Deasy said he will decide whether any of the previous staff will return to Miramonte after the district completes its investigation.

The president of the teachers union United Teachers Los Angeles said grievances will filed against the district.

Warren Fletcher told a news conference that some 85 teachers received a notice of administrative transfer on Wednesday.

The notice states that the transfer effective Monday is to a nearby unfinished high school, where the district has said the teachers will be housed and paid while the investigation is ongoing.

The teachers were being "tarred and stigmatized for no reason," Fletcher said.

Fletcher said the district told him none of the teachers will return to Miramonte permanent, but Deasy said that is not true.

The new staff includes a retired principal, 81 teachers and dozens of support staff who were recently laid off and were on a rehiring list.

The new hires alone will cost the cash-strapped district $5.7 million, said district spokesman Thomas Waldman. There will be a counselor in each classroom for the rest of the school year.

Although the teachers will be new, Miramonte students will find little else changed, Deasy told KNX Radio.

"They are coming right back to their desks, their work is already on the wall," he said. "What we are doing today is providing students with an opportunity to talk about what has happened."

In addition to those costs, the district faces potentially millions of dollars in legal costs as lawsuits are filed. Families of at least two dozen Miramonte students have retained lawyers so far.

The school's reopening follows revelations Wednesday that 200 more inappropriate photos of children were discovered, and that one teacher sent warmly written birthday cards and presents to students who participated in his games.

Teacher Mark Berndt sent birthday cards to some of the girls, asking how they were adjusting to the fourth grade, according to three lawsuits filed against the district.

He also is accused of writing warm notes such as "surely no teacher could ever have a more wonderful student than you!!" and "P.P.S. The Roaches Say 'Hi!'" On the back of one photo of a girl with a cookie topped with a white substance in her mouth is written "'College' Girl and Her Cookie!"

The notes were signed "Mr. B."

Students at the school say a large cockroach and other insects were kept in terrariums in Berndt's classroom, and authorities allege he photographed some students with the bug placed on their faces.

The cards were provided as exhibits in the lawsuits, which were filed Tuesday on behalf of three former students of Berndt.

The suits allege the district and Principal Martin Sandoval failed to adequately safeguard the students against Berndt and a second teacher arrested, Martin Springer, who faces three lewdness charges in connection with the fondling of a second-grader.

The lawsuit says Berndt gave one girl a CD dated Feb. 12, 2010, with the message, "Happy 9th B-Day — Hope You Enjoy the Songs!" and such songs as "Never on Sunday" and "Gonna Get Along Without You."

Sheriff's investigators said the 200 additional photos they believe were taken by Berndt brings the total number of photos discovered to 600. Berndt is accused of committing lewd acts on 23 children from 2005 to 2010.

The photos were found late last week at the same pharmacy where a photo lab technician had first noticed odd pictures that led to Berndt's arrest, sheriff's Lt. Carlos Marquez said.

Many of the photos involve children already identified by authorities, but there may be other victims, Marquez said.

Like the other pictures, the photos show children ages 6 to 10 blindfolded and being fed a milky, white liquid that authorities believe was semen on spoons or cookies, Marquez said.

Berndt, 61, taught for 32 years at the South Los Angeles school. He remains jailed on $23 million bail and could face life in prison if convicted.

The furor over his arrest led two parents to come forward last week to complain about Springer, who had worked at the school for 26 years.

Springer, 49, pleaded not guilty after he was charged with committing three lewd acts upon one girl in 2009. Bail was set at $300,000.

Detectives said there is no evidence that the two men acted in concert.

By Salon Staff

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