LA district tries to restore trust in school

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 praised the decision, while several dozen protested outside the school Tuesday morning and circulated a petition calling for the staff to be reinstated.

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 for suspected fondling two second-graders, four days after a third-grade teacher was accused of feeding 23 children his semen in a bizarre “tasting game.”

The school board on Tuesday voted unanimously to fire the teacher arrested Friday, Martin Springer, 49. The other teacher, Mark Berndt, 61, was fired in January 2010 after the district learned of a sheriff’s department probe.

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.

It’s unclear whether any 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.

Deasy said Miramonte staff members are having a difficult time understanding this situation.

“I’m mostly overwhelmed by how grieved they are, how upset they are, how broken their own personal trust is. In many ways, they are victimized too,” Deasy said. “They taught in this school for years and assumed everyone else was doing good things.”

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.

Miramonte parents were happy to hear the news first from the superintendent. They have complained bitterly that they weren’t informed about the yearlong probe into Berndt. Many heard the sordid details on news reports or from TV crews camped out at the school.

School officials said they deferred to sheriff’s detectives, who asked them not to divulge details that might affect their investigation.

Maria Jimenez, 51, said the parents are divided over the decision to remove the school’s 88 teachers and 40 other staff members.

“Some are in favor. Others are against it because they did this without advising us or consulting us,” she 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. He was charged with committing lewd acts upon one girl in 2009 and was due in court Tuesday afternoon.

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.

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