Since authorities charged a Miramonte Elementary School teacher nearly a month ago with committing lewd acts in his classroom, the Los Angeles Unified School District has seen a flurry of arrests of school employees accused of inappropriate behavior with children.
Over the last three weeks, six employees have been booked on suspicion of sex-related crimes, while several others have been pulled from the classroom amid investigations.
The overwhelming media coverage after the arrest of Miramonte teacher Mark Berndt for allegedly spoon-feeding his semen to blindfolded children has intensified discussion among school officials, parents and children about abuse.
But whether more children are being abused or more abusers are being caught is difficult to say. Law enforcement officials stressed that they don’t believe that more abuse is occurring. Rather, the Miramonte episode has sparked some people to come forward and others to be more watchful, they say.
“As a community, people are coming together and are hyper-vigilant about any other perpetrators. Everything is now being reported,” said Pia Escudero, who directs L.A. Unified’s mental health and crisis counseling services.
The district has seen an uptick in allegations of adult sexual misconduct in recent weeks. Counselors have been dispatched to several campuses — including 45 alone at Miramonte, one for every classroom.
Los Angeles Police Capt. Fabian E. Lizarraga, who oversees child sex crime investigations, said the department has seen an increase in allegations of “child annoyance” more than of more serious sexual misconduct.
“These reports say things like a teacher likes to rub my shoulders and sometimes their hands drift or he hugs me too long,” he said.
But there have been more serious allegations as well. On Thursday, authorities announced the arrest of a Roosevelt High School Spanish teacher on suspicion of having sex with two teenage boys. Gabriela Cortez, 42, was booked on suspicion of unlawful sexual intercourse.
Montebello police alleged that she had lengthy sexual relationships with the boys between 2008 and 2010. One of the teenagers, now 18, reported the teacher last week to police in Montebello, where she lives, said Chief Kevin McClure. After learning of the allegation, school officials immediately removed her from the classroom.
Berndt has been charged with photographing blindfolded and gagged students who thought they were taking part in a “tasting game.”
Within a week of his arrest, another Miramonte instructor, second-grade teacher Martin Springer, was charged with lewd acts involving a girl in his classroom.
Concerned about the effect of a widening investigation, Supt. John Deasy opted to replace the school’s entire staff.
That same week, Paul Adame, a Germain Elementary School janitor, was arrested for alleged lewd acts involving a student at the Chatsworth campus. A little over a week later, an FBI sex crimes task force arrested Alain Salas, a coach and teacher’s aide at Fremont High School in South Los Angeles. He has also been charged with lewd acts on a child.
Counselors had to be dispatched two weeks ago to Telfair Elementary School in Pacoima after it was revealed that teacher Paul Chapel had disappeared from the campus because of a molestation investigation. He was jailed in October.
In the past, district officials would never reveal what happened to a teacher who was dismissed or removed until they had to — they often cited the employee’s privacy rights and a fear of litigation.
But now, some district officials, including school board member Nury Martinez, are insisting that parents and campus colleagues have a right to know what allegedly happened.
School officials confirmed Wednesday that an unidentified teacher had resigned at Crenshaw High School amid an LAPD investigation into inappropriate conduct with a minor.
An athletic assistant at Francis Polytechnic High School in Sunland, Jose Rosario Alvarez, 27, was arrested Wednesday by the LAPD on suspicion of having a sexual relationship with a 16-year-old girl at another school.
Thomas Lyon, a law professor at USC, said the string of arrests could be driven by a combination of greater concern among parents and increased willingness on the part of law enforcement officials to act on allegations of abuse.
“When people hear about cases, they ask their child if anything has ever happened at their school…. And a fair number of children are going to reveal things because they’ve never been asked before,” he said. “Another thing is that police might be making arrests because they are more diligent.”
But Lyon said it’s also important to keep in mind that the volume of arrests is irrelevant in individual criminal proceedings — what matters in each case is the evidence itself. Such child abuse accusations, he added, can be difficult to prove in court.
“There will be the same proof problems.... Whether these cases will result in convictions is really unclear,” he said. ""What’s really the evidence in all these cases? That’s what I’d want to know.”
Lyon said the case against Miramonte’s Springer, for example, appears to hinge on the testimony of a single accuser (a second student accused Springer but later recanted).
“It’s going to be her word against his,” Lyon said. “That’s not a case L.A. prosecutors would usually take.”