Los Angeles School Reopens Amid Sex Abuse Scandal

Published February 9, 2012 10:09PM (EST)

LOS ANGELES (AP) — A hubbub of controversy surrounded the reopening of an elementary school on Thursday where the arrest of two former teachers on lewdness charges led to the entire staff being replaced.

Outside Miramonte Elementary School, about a hundred parents and children protested with signs saying "Give us our teachers back" and chanting "no new teachers" as TV cameras rolled.

The teachers union announced it would file grievances on behalf of some 85 reassigned teachers against Los Angeles Unified School District.

Inside, new teachers took over classrooms, with students sometimes having to instruct them in how things worked.

Parents also attended a meeting with the new principal, but many emerged dissatisfied, saying the district went overboard in removing all teachers.

"My son liked his teacher," said Jose Vargas, shaking his head.

The school had been closed for two days while the entire 120-member staff was replaced in an unprecedented move by the district.

Superintendent John Deasy is seeking to clear the school from a cloud of distrust and suspicion stemming from last week's arrest of former third-grade teacher Mark Berndt, 61, who is accused of feeding 23 children his semen during bizarre "tasting games" in his classroom from 2005 to 2010.

A second teacher, Martin Springer, was arrested four days later after two girls said he had fondled them in class in 2009.

Deasy said replacing the staff, from janitors to principal, was necessary to restore trust among parents in the largely poor, Latino neighborhood of unincorporated Los Angeles County.

Whether any of the previous staff will return to Miramonte will be determined after the district completes its investigation into how Berndt's alleged activities went undetected for so long, he said.

The teachers were told via a notice of administrative transfer that on Monday they will report to a nearby unfinished high school, where they will be interviewed while the investigation is ongoing.

The teachers were being "tarred and stigmatized for no reason," said United Teachers Los Angeles President Warren Fletcher at a news conference held on the school lawn.

Inside the school, children and teachers were adjusting.

In Martha Cedeno's first-grade class, pupils told her where to find the physical education schedule and explained they were to play volleyball, according to a pool report.

Another new face was in the class — counselor Gina Adelman, who had the kids write a farewell letter to their old teacher. Counselors will be present in the classes for the rest of the school year.

One student wrote "you had to go because of somebody evil," Adelman said. Others wrote "you were a good teacher" and "I will miss you."

Parents were also offered the option of transferring their children to another school. District employees were on hand to give parents information about other elementary schools in a two-mile radius and charter schools.

Parents said children were confused since they were just getting to know their 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 new hires, which include a retired principal, 81 teachers and dozens of support staff, will cost the cash-strapped district $5.7 million, said district spokesman Thomas Waldman. The new staffers were recently laid off and were on a rehiring list.

The district also faces potentially millions of dollars in legal costs as lawsuits are filed. Three lawsuits were filed on Tuesday, and claim notices have been filed for at least four other lawsuits.

A number of parents have opted to file lawsuits instead of going to sheriff's detectives because they are illegal immigrants and are afraid they'll be deported.

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.

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

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 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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