Los Angeles County prosecutors have dropped their case against a Miramonte Elementary School teacher who became embroiled in a child-abuse scandal that rocked the Los Angeles school district and resulted in the costliest settlements in the system's history.
The trial of Martin Springer was set to begin Wednesday morning, but his accuser, a 12-year-old girl who alleged that he had touched her leg several times, decided not to testify, officials said.
"She's not saying these things didn't happen," Deputy Dist. Atty. Alison Meyers said. "She's just saying she doesn't want to come to court. She feels very traumatized by the process."
L.A. Unified School District officials said they would not reverse their decision to fire Springer, who is fighting his dismissal. Nor do they regret paying nearly $3 million to settle six civil claims in which the veteran teacher was accused of abuse, they said.
Springer, 51, was a secondary figure in the crisis. More central was third-grade teacher Mark Berndt, who eventually pleaded no contest to 23 counts of committing lewd acts and was sentenced to 25 years in prison.
The case attracted international attention for its lurid details and spurred dozens of lawsuits. Police said Berndt conducted classroom games in which he fed students cookies topped with semen, among other alleged misconduct.
Springer, who taught at the school for more than two decades, came to the attention of authorities as they questioned students. He was arrested four days after Berndt in early 2012 and charged with three felony counts of committing lewd acts.
The arrest amplified the furor around the campus. District officials replaced all 85 teachers at Miramonte, located in Florence-Firestone southeast of downtown, for months in an effort to restore public confidence.
Legal experts said the criminal case against Springer was weak from the start.
The sole accuser alleged that when she was in third grade, she frequently approached Springer with questions while volunteering in his classroom during recess. He would crouch in front of her and place his hand on the back of her leg for several seconds, she said at the 2012 preliminary hearing.
Because the alleged touching was not overtly sexual, prosecutors were faced with the difficulty of proving that Springer had a sexual intent.
Last summer, they filed three misdemeanor charges of child annoyance — which covers any sexually motivated conduct — to give jurors an alternative to the felonies.
Investigators had interviewed 102 children about Springer but could not find evidence to support additional charges, authorities said. When the girl backed out, prosecutors had little choice but to drop their case.
"This is the danger of going with just one witness," said Laurie Levenson, a professor at Loyola Law School. "Especially a young witness. It's a lot of pressure on one person."
L.A. Unified Supt. John Deasy said nothing has changed from the perspective of the nation's second-largest school system. "The dismissal case will continue," he said.
In May, a state oversight panel is scheduled to hear Springer's appeal of his dismissal.
A representative of the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing said the suspension of his teaching credential would be lifted because the charges have been dismissed. If the firing is upheld, the commission can consider whether to revoke Springer's teaching credential.
"I'm hopeful that the word will get out that he is not how he has been painted by the district and the media," said Daniel Kolodziej, who is representing Springer in his dismissal case.
But Springer's troubles are far from over.
In the wake of his arrest, 13 people filed civil claims against L.A. Unified alleging that Springer abused them.