2012-02-07 / World

Staff removed at school during abuse probe

BY RAQUEL MARIA DILLON The Associated Press

LOS ANGELES

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.

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 today 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 today.

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.

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