Staff removed at LA school during abuse probe

Associated Press

LOS ANGELES (AP) — The entire staff at a Los Angeles elementary school is being removed while authorities investigate horrific allegations of sexual abuse by two of the school's teachers, one of whom is accused of blindfolding children, taping their mouths and photographing them in a classroom.

Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent John Deasy said Monday night that more than 120 staff members at Miramonte Elementary School — everyone from the principal and teachers to the cafeteria workers — were being replaced because a full investigation of the allegations will be disruptive and staffers will require support to get through the scandal.

"We intend to interview every adult, every adult who works at that school, whether they are a teacher or administrator, or whether they are an after-school playground worker or a custodian or a secretary. I mean every single solitary adult who works at Miramonte," Deasy said to parents who packed a high school gymnasium.

An entire staff has been selected to come into Miramonte's classrooms to take over teaching for the time being, and there will be a psychiatric social worker in every classroom to help students and staff cope with any issues.

The teachers and support staff will remain officially attached to Miramonte even though they are indefinitely being transferred, district spokeswoman Monica Carazo said Tuesday.

"He (Deasy) will decide if and when to return them back to the Miramonte school. So nothing is definite at this time," she said.

Deasy said the employees, which include nearly 90 teachers, will remain out of the school at least until August, when Miramonte changes from a year-round system to a regular summer-vacation schedule. When classes resume, there will be fewer teachers and fewer students because some will be transferred to new schools that are opening.

Deasy announced Monday that an investigation of the allegations will include interviewing former as well as current Miramonte students. The probe will be handled by an independent commission led by retired California Supreme Court Chief Justice Carlos Moreno.

All employees will be paid during the investigation, district spokesman Tom Waldman said. Officials didn't know how long the investigation would take.

"The last thing I'm worried about is a budget issue," Deasy said. "The No. 1 thing I'm worried about is the students."

School officials canceled classes on Tuesday and Wednesday as a cooling-off and transition period, Waldman said. All current staff members will report to another location, where they will be interviewed, he said. The new staff will report on Thursday.

Deasy emphasized that all new staff members being brought into the classroom went through a "very rigorous screening process."

He added Miramonte staff members are having a difficult time understanding this situation.

"I'm mostly overwhelmed by how grieved they are, how upset they are, how broken their own personal trust is. In many ways, they are victimized too," Deasy said. "They taught in this school for years and assumed everyone else was doing good things."

United Teachers Los Angeles said in a statement that union leaders and staff have met with instructors at Miramonte.

"We support a thorough, vigorous and fair investigation of all allegations," the statement said. "It's everyone's responsibility to ensure that any and all allegations are thoughtfully and carefully investigated."

Miramonte parents were happy to hear the news first from the superintendent. They have complained bitterly that they weren't informed about the yearlong investigation. Many heard the sordid details on news reports or from the TV crews camped out at the school's entrance.

School officials said they deferred to sheriff's detectives, who asked them not to divulge details that might affect their investigation.

Maria Jimenez, 51, said the parents are divided over the decision to remove the school's 88 teachers and 40 other staff members.

"Some are in favor. Others are against it because they did this without advising us or consulting us," she said.

The decision follows the arrest of two longtime Miramonte teachers: Mark Berndt and Martin Springer.

Berndt, 61, was charged last week with committing lewd acts on 23 children, ages 6 to 10, between 2005 and 2010. The acts cited by authorities include blindfolding children and feeding them his semen in his classroom, in what children were allegedly told was a tasting game.

Berndt, who worked at the school for 32 years, remains jailed on $23 million bail and could face life in prison if convicted.

Springer, 49, was arrested Friday on suspicion of fondling two girls in his classroom. He was being held on $2 million bail.

Springer taught at Miramonte for his entire career, which started in 1986, the district said. He taught second grade. The school board is scheduled to discuss firing him in a closed-door meeting Tuesday.

Investigators said they know of no connection between the Miramonte cases. Berndt and Springer know each other and took their classes on at least two joint field trips in the past decade, according to the Los Angeles Times.

More than a quarter of the students at Miramonte were absent from school Monday while parents demanded more protection at the school, with attendance reaching just 72 percent, according to figures from the Los Angeles Unified School District.

About three dozen parents and supporters protested in front of the main doors of the school earlier Monday, some carrying a banner that read, "We the parents demand our children be protected from lewd teacher acts."

As night fell, about 100 angry parents marched from the elementary school to the nearby meeting with administrators.

School police watched and sheriff's deputies were on hand, but there was no violence.

The district set up a toll-free hotline on Monday to receive reports of suspected abuse at Miramonte, said school board President Monica Garcia in a statement.

Garcia added that the district would step up efforts to ensure students and staff realized the importance of reporting misconduct.

In the same school district, a janitor at a San Fernando Valley elementary school was arrested on suspicion of committing a lewd act with a child on a campus.

Paul Adame, 37, was taken into custody after a mother told police on Sunday that he had inappropriate contact with her child during school hours Friday at Germain Elementary School in the Chatsworth area north of Los Angeles, police Capt. Kris Pitcher said at a news conference.

The captain declined to provide details but urged anyone who might know of other possible victims to contact police.

Adame was booked and released on $100,000 bail Monday. It could not be immediately determined if he had an attorney.

There was no immediate connection between the arrest of the janitor and the cases at Miramonte, which is 15 miles away in an unincorporated county area of South Los Angeles.

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Associated Press writer Robert Jablon contributed to this report.

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