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Not business as usual at L.A. Unified

The meeting began like so many post-crisis sessions in Los Angeles Unified:

A district honcho told the crowd of anxious parents that the school system was not at fault in the sex abuse scandal that has rocked their campus.

The principal bore "no responsibility for what happened" at Miramonte Elementary, local district Supt. George McKenna said. Parents "ought to be grateful" for the principal's professionalism and efficiency.

Like students admonished by their teacher, the parents dutifully settled.

Then Supt. John Deasy took the mike and tossed the old playbook aside.

He apologized. He invited parents to join him in a silent prayer for children who may have been victimized. And he promised the sort of wholesale change bound to shake up a district that is already polarized:

Every Miramonte employee — from the principal to the janitor — will be moved from the school and interrogated. Every student will get new teachers and a psychiatric social worker in every classroom. Former state Supreme Court Justice Carlos Moreno will lead a probe that includes interviews with former Miramonte students and every teacher who ever worked at the campus.

The moves are not intended to punish, Deasy said, but to give everyone time and space to heal — and to figure out "how we did not know" that something so wrong had apparently been going on at the school for so long.

His plan hasn't mollified parents. Some say it is too little, too late; others consider it overkill. The teachers union calls the purge a "media stunt" and dozens of teachers plan to file grievances to protest the transfers.

But I think the superintendent is wisely following his heart. His action delivers a message — at last — that this is not business as usual.

That's a striking about-face for a district known for trying to contain scandals by sweeping them under the rug.

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There's been a lot of talk this week about whether the Miramonte situation might be tipping toward McMartin. In that 1980s molestation case, preschool teachers in the South Bay were accused of ritualistic abuse of entire classrooms of young students. The claims were ultimately discredited and chalked up to hysteria.

But we ought to be talking instead about Terry Bartholome, a teacher who got away with molesting young students in South Los Angeles for years because of callousness and incompetence among L.A. Unified officials.

Bartholome was convicted in 1986 of molesting more than a dozen third-grade girls — fondling them, making them touch his genitals, publicly masturbating in class. He was sentenced to 44 years in prison.

Parents and students had complained about him for years. Half a dozen district officials — including two principals and the superintendent — fielded allegations of sexual misconduct between 1982 and 1985.

But no one pulled Bartholome from the classroom. Instead, he was handled "administratively" — transferred from one elementary school to another. There, he picked up where he'd left off.

It wasn't until Bartholome confessed to a teacher's aide that young girls "excited" him that police were finally called.

Since then, things haven't changed much.

Three years ago, an assistant principal in South Los Angeles was sentenced to eight years in prison for sex crimes — some committed on campus — against four middle school students.

Stephen Thomas Rooney had been transferred by district officials to Markham Middle School after he was accused of having a sexual relationship with a 15-year-old girl at Foshay Learning Center.

I don't think it's a coincidence that all these schools are within a few miles of one another. There's a set of common forces at work, beyond the aberrant evil of a particular teacher:

It's hard finding and keeping good teachers in inner-city schools, so administrators may brush off complaints or will themselves not to see. On large, crowded campuses, like Miramonte, it's easy to avoid accountability. And the absence of a cohesive parent community willing to challenge authority means children may be doubted, and teachers believed.

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Almost all of Miramonte's students are poor and more than half speak only Spanish. Many parents are here illegally, believe they have no rights and are afraid to raise questions or complain.

That's the mind-set that feeds this kind of tragedy, said former state Sen. Martha Escutia, who spent 14 years in Sacramento representing the area around Miramonte. She returned to the neighborhood Monday night, to help parents organize.

There is a cultural reluctance among Mexican immigrants to question authority here, she said. Many share a reverence for teachers that might allow questionable behavior to go unchecked.

"It's primarily an undocumented crowd," Escutia confirmed as we walked to a nearby high school alongside families armed with handmade protest signs.

"People think, 'The less trouble I cause, the better off I am.' They don't want to draw attention to their status."

This crisis may be a turning point, a way for them to find their voice.

"The immigrant community does not have a history of standing up for their rights," Escutia said. "But the tipping point, like in any other community, is when you mess with their kids. You don't want to have to deal with [an angry] Mexican mom."

Those moms were out in force this week. They packed the auditorium Monday night, some reading from a list of "demands" — to visit the classroom, have a teacher conference, volunteer on campus — that parents like me recognize as fundamental rights.

They cheered Deasy's plan to remake the school, but booed when he cut speakers short. This was their time, on their turf. The meeting was conducted largely in Spanish, with headsets to translate into English for outsiders like me.

And they left with a message I hope they'll carry through the process of remaking Miramonte: This fight is not just about their rights, but their responsibility as parents.

"This is not like a soap opera. This is real life," district parent liaison Maria Casillas told them. "Tell your children to trust whatever they think. A child knows when something is not right.... You have to listen and let them speak."

The march back to Miramonte that night was part protest, part vigil, part pep rally. Cars driving by honked at the moms toting signs. Drivers rolled down their windows and pumped their fists, energized by the sight of a community come alive.

And little children carried candles whose flames kept flickering out in the night. It seemed a fitting memorial to what they'd lost: an innocence that no investigation can restore.

sandy.banks@latimes.com

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