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Students, teachers return to Miramonte following abuse scandal

August 14, 2012 |  1:38 pm

Jacqueline Ceja,7, looks on as her mother searches for her name on classroom assignment lists at Miramonte Elementary

Classroom assignments, framed on orange poster boards, were strung along a fence on the east side of Miramonte Elementary. Children checked for their teachers’ names and room numbers, then passed inside the gate and headed toward the blacktop.

There, a dozen students played kickball for as long as they could get away with it. An older student fist-bumped a teacher he recognized. Other reunions began with hugs. Teachers held up signs, trying to get students to line up behind them.

“Just as disorganized as ever,” said Tamira Long,  who wandered around to find where Ms. Aragon’s class was gathering. Long’s son, Romir, was so excited about starting first grade that he woke up at 5:30 a.m. without the alarm going off.

That was the scene as school opened Tuesday at Miramonte. But in addition to the normal bustle and excitement on campus, there were four TV news vans, two school police officers and 16 psychiatric social workers.

Miramonte’s teachers were abruptly removed from the school in February following the arrests of a current and a former teacher charged with lewd conduct against students. In what he called a confidence-building measure, Los Angeles schools Supt. John Deasy had ordered the entire staff to report to a not-yet-opened campus while Miramonte finished the school year with replacement teachers.

Former Miramonte teacher Mark Berndt, 61, has been charged with committing 23 counts of lewd conduct in his classroom from July 2005 until authorities pulled him from the school in January 2011. The second teacher, Martin Springer, is charged in connection with one incident of alleged lewd conduct. Both longtime Miramonte teachers have pleaded not guilty.

On Tuesday, 45 of the original teachers, cleared of any wrongdoing, were back. Others moved to different campuses because Miramonte converted this year from a year-round to a traditional schedule, which reduced the enrollment at the campus in Florence-Firestone.

Fifth-grader April Gonzalez welcomed the return of familiar faces.

“It was surprising what happened last year, and it was difficult, but we got through it,” she said. “I’m very happy to see the teachers back.”

“My teacher — she was like a second mother to me,” April said of May Lynn Montano, who is back teaching fourth grade.

Long said that both she and her son were distraught to lose his kindergarten teacher, Ms. Sanchez, in the middle of last year.

“They developed such a close bond,” Long said. “And I had a good rapport with her, and I trusted her.”

Long and her son looked for their former teacher, whom they heard had returned, but couldn’t find her.

The events of last year undermined what had been Long’s automatic trust in her children’s safety at school. “You think: School, teachers -- they can be trusted. But how safe can a school really be?” she asked.

Upstairs, in Room 18 of the main building, sixth-grade teacher Robyn Bancroft saw some familiar faces, and it was no accident. She had been in her second year teaching the same group of students when she had to leave. She’d grown close to them and wanted to make up for the disruption in their school year.

“The kids need you,” Bancroft said in an interview before the start of school. “I felt it was important for me personally to come back, and to come back here. We want to restore our reputations and let the kids know that leaving was not a choice that we made.”

“The biggest reason that I’m here is that you know that you’re affecting children’s lives in a positive way.”

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-- Howard Blume

Photo: Jacqueline Ceja, 7, looks on as her mother searches for her name on classroom assignment lists at Miramonte Elementary. Credit: Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times

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