US school re-opens amid sex abuse scandal

2012-02-10 13:44

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Los Angeles - School got off to a rough start on Thursday with students returning to class for the first time since their entire elementary school staff was replaced after two longtime teachers were accused of lewd acts on children in the largely poor, Latino neighbourhood.

The teachers union president assailed the reassignment of teachers as a stunt, about 100 parents and students blasted the move and some of the new teachers needed a bit of help from their students.

The superintendent of Los Angeles County schools said replacing the staff, from janitors to principal, was necessary to restore trust among parents.

United Teachers Los Angeles President Warren Fletcher said teachers were being "tarred and stigmatised for no reason" and that grievances would be filed against Los Angeles Unified School District on behalf of about 85 reassigned teachers.

"It is crystal clear that LAUSD doesn't have a plan," Fletcher said. "They're making this up as they go along, and students at the school are paying the price."

The school's re-opening follows revelations on Wednesday that 200 more inappropriate photos of children were discovered, and that one teacher sent warmly written birthday cards and presents to students who participated in his games.

Facing life in prison

The lawsuits allege the district and Principal Martin Sandoval failed to adequately safeguard the students against Berndt and Springer.

Many of the photos involve children already identified by authorities, but there may be other victims, authorities said.

Like the other pictures, the photos show children ages 6 to 10 blindfolded and being fed a milky, white liquid that authorities believe was semen on spoons or cookies.

Berndt taught for 32 years at the South Los Angeles school. He remains jailed on $23m bail and could face life in prison if convicted.

The furore over his arrest led two parents to come forward last week to complain about Springer, who had worked at the school for 26 years.

Detectives said there is no evidence that the two men acted in concert.

Tasting games

The school had been closed for two days while the entire 120-member staff was replaced in an unprecedented move by the district.

Superintendent John Deasy said the makeover was needed to clear the school from a cloud of distrust and suspicion stemming from the arrest of former third-grade teacher Mark Berndt, aged 61, who has been charged with 23 counts of lewd acts upon children, ages 6 to 10.

Berndt is accused of feeding his semen to some students during "tasting games" in his classroom from 2005 to 2010.

A second teacher, Martin Springer, aged 49, was arrested last week after two girls said he had fondled them in class in 2009. Springer pleaded not guilty after he was charged with committing three lewd acts on one girl in 2009. The other girl has since recanted her allegation.

About 100 parents and children protested with signs saying "Give us our teachers back" and chanting "no new teachers" as TV cameras rolled.

Parents also attended a meeting with the new principal, but many emerged dissatisfied, saying the district went overboard.

Farewell letters

Whether any of the previous staff will return to Miramonte will be determined after the district completes its investigation into how Berndt's alleged activities went undetected for so long, he said.

The teachers were told via a notice of administrative transfer that on Monday they will report to a nearby unfinished high school, where they will be interviewed while the investigation is ongoing.

In the classrooms they left behind, children and teachers were adjusting.

Counsellors had the kids write a farewell letter to their old teachers. Counsellors will be present in the classes for the rest of the school year.

Parents were also offered the option of transferring their children to another school. District employees were on hand to give parents information about other elementary schools in a 3km radius and charter schools.

The new hires, which include a retired principal, 81 teachers and dozens of support staff, will cost the cash-strapped district $5.7m, said district spokesperson Thomas Waldman. The new staffers were recently laid off and were on a rehiring list.

Illegal immigrants

The district also faces potentially millions of dollars in legal costs as lawsuits are filed. Three lawsuits were filed on Tuesday, and claim notices have been filed for at least four other lawsuits.

A number of parents have opted to file lawsuits instead of going to sheriff's detectives because they are illegal immigrants and are afraid they'll be deported.

Assemblyman Tom Ammiano said he will reintroduce a bill later this month that will protect children and domestic violence victims from deportation.

"What does it say about our society if parents won't speak to the police when their children are in danger?" Ammiano asked. "Enough is enough. Every parent regardless of immigration status deserves access to the police and to know that their children are being protected."

- AP
Read more on:    us  |  child abuse
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