L.A. schools see a flurry of teacher abuse claims
Since authorities charged a Miramonte Elementary School teacher with lewd acts in his classroom nearly a month ago, the Los Angeles Unified School District has seen a flurry of arrests of school employees accused of inappropriate behavior with children.
Over the last three weeks, six employees have been booked in sex-related crimes while several others have been pulled from the classroom amid investigations.
The widespread media coverage after the arrest of Miramonte teacher Mark Berndt for allegedly spoon-feeding his semen to blindfolded children has intensified discussions among school officials, as well as parents and children, about abuse. But whether more children are being abused or more abusers are being caught is difficult to answer.
Law enforcement officials stressed that they don’t believe more abuse is occurring. Rather, the Miramonte episode has sparked some to come forward and others to be more watchful.
L.A. Unified has seen an uptick in allegations of adult sexual misconduct in recent weeks. Counselors have been dispatched to several campuses, including 45 alone at Miramonte -- one for every classroom.
Los Angeles Police Department Capt. Fabian E. Lizarraga, who oversees child sex-crime investigations, said the department has seen a spike in "child annoyance" allegations more so than more serious charges of sexual misconduct.
“These reports say things like a teacher likes to rub my shoulders and sometimes their hands drift or he hugs me too long,” he said,
There have been more serious allegations as well. On Thursday, authorities announced the arrest of a Spanish teacher at Roosevelt High School on suspicion of having sex with two teenage boys.
Gabriela Cortez, 42, was booked on suspicion of unlawful sexual intercourse. Montebello police alleged that she had lengthy sexual relationships with the boys between 2008 and 2010.
One of the teenagers, now 18, reported the teacher last week to police in Montebello, where she lives, said Chief Kevin McClure. After learning of the allegation, school officials immediately removed her from the classroom.
Berndt has been charged with allegedly taking photos of blindfolded and gagged students who thought they were taking part in a “tasting game” conducted by him.
The teacher was pulled from the classroom more than a year ago, when district officials saw photos obtained by police. Soon after, the Board of Education quietly voted to fire Berndt, but a public firestorm did not erupt until Berndt’s arrest in late January.
Within a week of Berndt’s arrest, another Miramonte instructor, second-grade teacher Martin Springer, was charged with lewd acts upon a girl in his classroom.
Concerned about the effect of a widening investigation, Supt. John Deasy opted to replace the school’s entire staff.
Deasy then moved to fire Springer as well as music teacher Vance Miller, a popular fixture at Hamilton High School, who is the target of two lawsuits over alleged sexual abuse.
That same week, Paul Adame, a Germain Elementary School janitor, was arrested for alleged lewd acts upon a student at the Chatsworth campus.
A little over a week later, an FBI sex crimes task force arrested Alain Salas, a coach and special education aide at John C. Fremont Senior High. He is also been charged with lewd acts on a child.
Counselors had to be dispatched to Telfair Elementary School after it was revealed that teacher Paul Chapel had disappeared from the campus because of a molestation investigation. He was jailed in October.
In the past, district officials would never reveal what happened to a teacher who was dismissed or removed until they had to -- they often cited the employee’s privacy rights and a fear of litigation.
-- Richard Winton, Howard Blume and Sam Allen