Sexual abuse, and LAUSD's overreaction

The allegations of sexual molestation involving two teachers at Miramonte Elementary School have rightly rocked the Los Angeles Unified School District. Now that the alarm has been raised and the need to watch for and report suspicious behavior is better understood, more reports have arisen at other schools of possible abuses. And though it was an extreme move, we also supported the shifting and temporary replacement of the entire staff of Miramonte until the investigation has been completed, to ensure that students are protected.

But now the district is banning innocent activities that have nothing to do with sex abuse but happen to raise memories of the reported misdeeds at Miramonte. Specifically, teachers cannot blindfold students for any reason — even though the curriculum calls for doing just that as part of an exercise in understanding and using all of one's senses. Why is blindfolding being banned? Because Mark Berndt faces charges of lewd conduct for allegedly feeding children his semen while they were blindfolded.

In addition, a substitute teacher has been told that he no longer can teach children to make their own butter in class and then taste it on crackers. Again, this is because Berndt is accused of feeding at least one student a semen-tainted cookie.

School officials and parents are understandably a little jumpy about activities that might call such awful scenes to mind. But the school district isn't doing a thing to protect its students by banning blindfolds and butter. If the allegations about Berndt are true, he thought up a novel method by which he could mistreat students while minimizing the chances that they would complain. In the future, molesters will invent entirely different ways of accomplishing their goals. Overreacting to the last event gives the illusion of protection while actually leaving children vulnerable to new threats.

But maybe protecting children wasn't the chief concern. Maybe officials were more worried about how these lessons would be perceived, and that such activities, coming so soon after Berndt was arrested, would raise concerns. They might. This would be the perfect time for the district to educate parents about what types of behaviors they ought to be concerned about — butter on crackers wouldn't generally be among those — and, just as important, how to make sure district officials are taking their complaints seriously when something really is amiss.

Could school go on without blindfolds? Without butter-making projects? Of course. It also could continue without a sobbing elementary school student ever getting a reassuring hug from a teacher, another thing teachers are being instructed to avoid in the wake of Miramonte. But each time schools overreact and restrict more classroom activities, the learning process is made a little colder and a little more colorless.

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