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California

Will L.A. Unified’s response to abuse allegations pass muster?

Did detectives move quickly enough?

Did the school drop the ball on earlier complaints?

Is Los Angeles Unified Supt. John Deasy helping clean up a terrible mess, or making matters worse?

These are all fair questions in the sick and sordid case of Miramonte Elementary School, where two teachers were arrested in the last week and charged with lewd acts involving students. One of the cases, in which a teacher is accused, among other things, of feeding semen to blindfolded students, is about as depraved as it gets.

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Understandably, parents at the 1,500-student elementary school near Watts are fuming not just about the shocking revelations, but about what’s happened since.

“They didn’t tell us anything,” Maria Gervacio was saying Tuesday on the front lawn of the school.

“They” was a reference to L.A. Unified and the latest twist in the saga. On Monday, Deasy decided to transfer the ENTIRE workforce at Miramonte while the investigation continues. Teachers, clerical staff, janitors — they’ll all be gone Thursday, and the school will be reopened with a whole new staff.

Deasy said the move was necessary to regain parent confidence and to allow the district to determine whether there was a culture of silence at Miramonte.

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Some parents applauded the move. With others, it backfired, and they were protesting Tuesday morning outside the school. They were understandably concerned that bringing in new staff in the middle of the year, with little idea of what the kids were studying, was likely to disrupt learning at a school where scores are already significantly below the district average on standardized tests. They were also annoyed that they hadn’t been consulted.

“If it’s a new teacher on Thursday, I’m not going to come to school,” said sixth-grader Brenda Alvarez.

Gervacio said she wouldn’t send her three children to school either.

“It doesn’t make sense” to turn the whole school upside down, Gervacio said.

Another mom held a sign that said: “Not All Teachers Are Criminals.” One parent wept as she and others called up to a departing teacher who addressed them from a balcony.

“Read, read, read,” the teacher reminded his students below, a parting assignment from an instructor who may or may not return. Temporarily, the staff will remain on payroll and be housed at a school that’s under construction.

I understand that the first priority is to protect children from further abuse, but unless there’s evidence of another predator on campus, why subject students to the shock of losing their teachers mid-year?

As the parent of an LAUSD elementary student, I can’t help but think about how I’d react if this were happening at my daughter’s school. Could it even happen in a middle-class neighborhood like mine?

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Well, apparently so. Former Hamilton High music teacher Vance Miller was also fired by Deasy this week. Like third-grade teacher Mark Berndt at Miramonte, Miller had been removed from the classroom more than a year ago pending investigation after allegations of child abuse first surfaced.

At Miramonte, Berndt is suspected of spreading semen on cookies and putting cockroaches on children’s faces, then photographing these atrocities. The same teacher had been the subject of a parent complaint in 1994 and another in 2008. In the earlier case, which involved the alleged fondling of a student, the D.A.'s office found insufficient evidence to file. In the 2008 case, a student’s parents went to the Miramonte principal with strange photos of their daughter, ostensibly taken by Berndt. One showed a cookie with a shiny coating.

The parents say the principal waved off their concerns, telling them that it might have been some kind of class project.

The student was transferred to another teacher, who allegedly touched her in an inappropriate way, leading to another complaint that got nowhere. Last week, the second Miramonte teacher, Martin Bernard Springer, was arrested and charged with fondling a student.

Berndt finally got yanked out of class early in 2011, after a CVS photo clerk called authorities about some strange photos, and a sheriff’s investigator found a blue spoon with an unknown substance on it in a Miramonte trash bin. So why did it take a full year for an investigation and the filing of charges?

Bill McSweeney, chief of detectives for the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department, told me investigators didn’t initially know the substance on the spoon was semen.

“Semen was a reasonable guess, but they were ruling out other things,” he said.

OK, you’ve got an elementary school teacher suspected of feeding semen to blindfolded students. Shouldn’t you drop everything and jump on it full force?

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“It certainly seems like that now,” McSweeney conceded.

But Berndt was already out of the classroom and under surveillance, he said, and the DNA testing was delayed while lab test priority was given to murder and rape cases. McSweeney said it wasn’t until mid-2011 that the substance was identified as semen, and the case kicked into another gear, with investigators discreetly interviewing parents and children to avoid going public and contaminating the investigation as they worked to eventually identify 23 alleged victims.

Understood, but did bagging Berndt take precedence for the Sheriff’s Department and district attorney’s office over fully informing parents of what their children had been subjected to? Did they need all 23 victims before making the arrest and notifying the Miramonte school community?

I’d be fuming as a parent if I learned that school officials and police knew my child might have been a victim of, or witness to, unimaginable abuses but didn’t immediately inform me. Was there a possibility of diseases for children who ingested semen, or psychological issues?

“This is a very emotional subject,” McSweeney said, “without perfect answers for everyone.”

It seems to go that way a little too often when the questions are put to LAUSD and Lee Baca’s Sheriff’s Department.

steve.lopez@latimes.com


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