The sexual abuse of students at Miramonte Elementary School was creepy beyond measure, involving a “game” in which third-graders were blindfolded and fed cookies tainted with their teacher’s semen. But the astonishing $139-million legal settlement — on top of an earlier $30-million settlement with Miramonte students — had more to do with the Los Angeles Unified School District’s culpability than with the horror of Mark Berndt’s criminal mistreatment of trustful young children.
Schools can never completely protect students against predators in the classroom. But they can take action once they are given reason to be concerned, and in this case, administrators had ample warning. Former Miramonte students and their parents alleged troubling behavior by Berndt years before his arrest in 2012. Two of his former students say that they complained to a counselor about him masturbating in class, but were told to stop making up stories. An investigation into other strange behavior resulted in too little evidence for criminal charges, but should have resulted in Berndt being more carefully scrutinized by school officials.
Institutional inertia too often has prevailed at schools, especially those that enroll mostly poor and minority students. Before the school accountability movement became mired in debates over teacher evaluations, it coalesced around a noble commitment to treat low-income students as though they and their futures mattered. Though there have always been some dedicated teachers and administrators in such schools, there also was a history of giving short shrift to students’ needs and their parents’ concerns, whether those involved academics or safety.
At Miramonte, then-Supt. John Deasy transferred the entire staff once Berndt was arrested, saying that he feared the abuse might be more widespread, but he never carried through on his promise to have a high-level panel thoroughly investigate the matter. The transfer disrupted the school, but ultimately accomplished nothing, while an investigation would have given the public and district personnel a clear picture of how such vile conduct could have gone on for so long.
The district has made some changes that should help. Chief among them is the formation of a team of investigators to examine allegations of abusive behavior swiftly and more professionally. A new database of teacher conduct cases also should give administrators a better idea of which teachers attract the most complaints.
But administrative fixes are of limited use if complaints never reach that level. Teachers and parents at every school should be given a voice in devising plans to ensure that a Miramonte-type scandal never occurs at their campuses.
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