Staff of Miramonte replaced pending sex abuse inquiry

In a dramatic move to quell parents' fears, Los Angeles school officials said they will temporarily replace the entire staff of an elementary school south of downtown Los Angeles, where two teachers have been accused of lewd acts against students.

Los Angeles Unified School District Supt. John Deasy announced the action at a tense public meeting Monday evening in which Miramonte Elementary School parents chanted "cover-up!" and accused the school system of failing to protect their children.

Some parents said they were alarmed by reports that students had complained about one of the accused teachers several times in the last two decades.

FULL COVERAGE: Miramonte sex-abuse investigation

PHOTOS: Sex abuse charges spark parent uproar

"My trust level is at zero," Cassini Quarles, the mother of a third-grader, said outside the meeting, which was held at a nearby high school.

The staffing shake-up marks an attempt to rebuild community confidence as detectives and school officials continue their investigations.

More than a quarter of the students enrolled at Miramonte didn't show up Monday as parents kept them home. On Monday night, some parents applauded the removal of the school's staff as a good first step.

Officials emphasized that no other educators at the school are under suspicion but that a bold act was needed to help remove the cloud over Miramonte.

"I cannot have another student tell me he is afraid," Deasy told parents at the meeting.

"The primary responsibility, bar none, is safety and support.... Clearly, several individuals have violated the most sacred trust we have," Deasy said.

The school has 150 teachers and administrators and about 1,500 students, making it one of the largest elementary schools in Los Angeles.

The move could be temporary. Many, maybe all, of the current Miramonte staff will be returned to the school eventually, officials said. In the interim, their places will be filled by teachers and other workers on a rehiring list.

The Miramonte staff will continue to be paid and for the time being will move to a nearby campus that is under construction.

Miramonte will be closed for the next two days during the transition. Officials plan to have the new teachers and administrators in place by Thursday. Once students return, each will be interviewed by the district, and a psychiatric social worker will be present in every classroom, Deasy said.

For the students who showed up for school Monday morning, it was a day like no other.

As students walked into the school, they passed a row of police officers, television cameras and a demonstration by angry parents. The protesters shouted into megaphones and hoisted a large banner that read: "We the Parents Demand Our Children Be Protected From Lewd Teachers at LAUSD."

Attorneys have also descended upon the campus, some holding an impromptu press conference on behalf of parents and alleged victims of the teachers.

Parents described days of talking to their children about the allegations and trying to determine if they were victims.

"Instead of asking, 'Did you learn something today?' I asked, 'Did someone touch you?'" said Nancy Linares, 41, whose granddaughter attends the school.

Every day since the scandal broke, Lisa and Eddie Carmona have been asking their son about his former third-grade teacher, Mark Berndt, who faces 23 felony counts for allegedly blindfolding, gagging and spoon-feeding semen to students; the evidence includes photographs he took of the students.

Each time, their son has said that nothing happened, that he was never touched or photographed. In fact, until recently, Berndt was one of his favorite teachers.

Still, Lisa Carmona can't help but ask again and again.

"I said to [my son], 'You don't have to lie to me. If he said he would threaten you or hurt you, you don't have to worry. He's locked up in jail now. He can't hurt you,'" Carmona said.

The investigation at Miramonte began in 2010 after the teacher took film to be developed at a drugstore. A clerk noticed disturbing images of children and called authorities. Detectives, who eventually seized hundreds of photographs that they say Berndt took in his classroom, set out to identify the children in the pictures, interview them and their parents and quietly piece together the case.

After Berndt's arrest, two families reported that a second-grade teacher, 49-year-old Martin Bernard Springer, had fondled their children in separate incidents within the last three years. He was removed from his classroom Thursday and arrested the next day.

Both teachers had spent their entire careers at Miramonte, Berndt starting in 1979 and Springer in 1986. Former students said the two men were friends, but the cases are not considered to be related.

When Berndt, 61, was arrested, school district officials said they had no record of any previous misconduct or complaints against him. But evidence of past warning signs has since emerged.

One former student said in an interview with The Times that during the 1990-91 school year a counselor told her and two other girls to stop inventing stories after a complaint that Berndt appeared to be masturbating behind his desk. In 1994, detectives investigated a complaint that Berndt had tried to touch a girl's genitals, though prosecutors deemed the evidence too weak to file charges. And one father said that he complained in 2008 to the Miramonte principal after his daughter brought home photographs that Berndt had taken of her. In one image, she was eating a cookie coated with what investigators now suspect is Berndt's semen.

The unincorporated Florence-Firestone neighborhood surrounding Miramonte is one of the poorest in Los Angeles County. Miramonte has struggled academically and is one of the last campuses in the school district to operate year-round because of overcrowding.

According to the school's website, 98% of the students are Latino and 2% are black. About 56% of Miramonte students are learning English, and virtually everyone receives free or reduced-price meals, a poverty indicator.

Many parents protesting Monday had been students there, including some taught by the teachers who have been arrested.

Karina Aguillon, 21, a parent of a kindergartner, remembered Berndt.

"I was shocked because I had that teacher," she said. "He was nice.... You don't know who to trust anymore. You can't even trust the teachers."

Deasy said it could take some time for the district to fully investigate what happened at Miramonte. He announced Monday that an independent commission would review the incidents, led by retired California Supreme Court Associate Justice Carlos Moreno.

"I have to understand how this could happen," Deasy said.

FULL COVERAGE: Miramonte sex-abuse investigation

howard.blume@latimes.com

sam.allen@latimes.com

angel.jennings@latimes.com

Los Angeles Times staff writers Dalina Castellanos, Stephen Ceasar, Richard Winton and Alan Zarembo contributed to this report.

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