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Category: Mark Berndt

Miramonte teachers speak out, saying they're angry and humiliated

Rally outside Augustus F. Hawkins High

For the first time since they were removed from Miramonte Elementary School, teachers described their experiences over the last three months in statements obtained by The Times.

The teachers, who are expected to take part in a rally Thursday afternoon, recounted their humiliation, anger and sadness at being transferred from the school. L.A. Unified Supt. John Deasy replaced the staff at Miramonte after the arrests of two teachers on lewd conduct charges; both have pleaded not guilty.

“All of us have been publicly punished and humiliated for the alleged acts of one person,” a teacher wrote in one statement. “I no longer tell people I’m a teacher. Until very recently, I was proud to be one.”

Another wrote: “Never did I imagine leaving Miramonte this way. I was expected to pack up ten years in two days.”

And a third said: “It was surreal and I thought to myself, ‘What did I do to deserve this?’ For six weeks we were kept in the dark, no new information or interviews from anyone.”

Deasy has said most of the teachers will return to Miramonte in the fall but that he needed to restore public confidence at the campus. 

The teachers have been reporting to an unopened high school, Augustus Hawkins in South Los Angeles. They sometimes held meetings and sometimes had nothing to do, some said.

The move followed the January arrest of former teacher Mark Berndt, who has pleaded not guilty to 23 counts of lewd conduct. Deputies arrested a second teacher, Martin Springer, on unrelated lewd conduct allegations days later. He also has pleaded not guilty.

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Photo: Teacher Joyce Berwanger hugs fourth-grader Stacy Arroyo, 10, at a rally outside Augustus F. Hawkins High School. Credit: Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times 

Miramonte teachers removed from school to break silence

Miramonte Elementary School

Teachers from Miramonte Elementary School, who were removed from work in a wide-ranging lewd-conduct investigation, will release anonymous statements on Thursday about their ordeal.

The statements will be read during an afternoon rally outside Augustus Hawkins High School, an unopened campus where the Miramonte teachers have reported to work since early February. Some Miramonte teachers may take part in the reading of the statements, said Ingrid Villeda, the south area chair for the teachers union, United Teachers Los Angeles.

The rally begins at 3:30 p.m., said UTLA spokeswoman Marla Eby.

The entire Miramonte staff -- teachers and other employees -- were displaced a week after the arrest in January of former teacher Mark Berndt. He has pleaded not guilty to 23 counts of lewd conduct, allegedly with students. Days later, a second teacher, Martin Springer, was arrested on unrelated lewd conduct charges. He also has pleaded not guilty.

Word of the rally was first reported Wednesday on the website of KPCC-FM (89.3).

The removal of an entire staff in the wake of a criminal investigation was unprecedented, observers said. L.A. schools Supt. John Deasy said he made the move as a gesture to restore public confidence. He said he also wanted to minimize any disruption either to the ongoing investigation or to instruction at Miramonte.

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Bills on teacher sex misconduct move through Legislature

Two bills dealing with teacher sexual misconduct are making their way through the state Legislature, with each passing a key hurdle Wednesday. One bill passed the state Senate Education Committee, and separate legislation moved through state Assembly Education Committee.

The legislation is fallout from the arrest of former Miramonte Elementary School teacher Mark Berndt, who has pleaded not guilty to 23 counts of lewd conduct with students. Investigators allege that he spoon-fed his semen to blindfolded students as part of what he called a “tasting” game.

The Senate bill, by state Sen. Alex Padilla (D-Pacoima), modifies the dismissal process for teachers accused of serious misconduct involving sex, violence or drugs. The key provisions of SB 1530 include letting a local school board make the final decision on firing a teacher accused of misconduct. A teacher could appeal to an administrative law judge, but the judge’s ruling would not be binding on a school board.

Currently, an independent appeals panel can overturn a firing, and the appeals panel consists of a judge and two teachers.

L.A. Unified paid Berndt a settlement of $40,000 rather than risk the cost and uncertain outcome from an appeals panel that might not have access to the police evidence.

SB 1059, sponsored by Republican Senate Leader Bob Huff of Diamond Bar, addresses similar issues but failed to make it out of the Senate Education Committee. Its twin in the state Assembly did survive in an amended form in the Education Committee of that house. The legislation, AB 2028 is sponsored by Steve Knight (R-Antelope Valley) and Cameron Smyth (R-Santa Clarita). It amends the dismissal process for a broader range of offenses than the Padilla bill.

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Miramonte Elementary to get new parents center

Miramonte Elementary, the school where a former teacher faced misconduct charges, will have a new parents center next fall.

The $143,535 project to relocate and update the center won unanimous approval Tuesday from the Los Angeles Board of Education. The effort at Miramonte, which is located in unincorporated Florence-Firestone, is part of a $20-million districtwide initiative authorized in June 2011.

Miramonte Elementary burst into the news in February with the arrest of Mark Berndt, who has pleaded not guilty to 23 counts of lewd conduct. A second teacher, Martin Springer, was later arrested on lewd conduct charges and has pleaded not guilty. L.A. schools Supt. John Deasy decided to replace the school’s entire staff, saying teachers and other employees would be allowed to return next year when all investigations were complete.

At least five updated parent centers have been finished across the nation’s second-largest school system, and a group of 22 more were approved for construction in February. About 300 schools will eventually benefit.

The timetable for the Miramonte upgrade was accelerated in response to the teachers' arrests and also because the school was moving next fall from a year-round schedule to a traditional calendar.

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Parents to learn of school sex misconduct allegations in 72 hours

Parents will be notified within 72 hours when a teacher is removed from a classroom because of sexual-misconduct allegations, Los Angeles school officials announced Thursday.

The new policy addresses parent anger in the wake of the arrests of several teachers and other Los Angeles Unified School District employees.

“The spate of cases involving sexual misconduct in recent months has prompted a re-evaluation of our reporting procedures,” said Supt. John Deasy in a statement.

Parents at Miramonte Elementary in unincorporated Florence-Firestone were upset that they received no explanation when veteran teacher Mark Berndt was pulled from class early in 2011. A year later, Berndt was charged with 23 counts of lewd conduct; he has pleaded not guilty.

Before the arrest, the school district and detectives limited the release of even partial information to those interviewed as part of the investigation. They said they didn’t want to risk compromising the probe.

At Telfair Elementary in Pacoima, parents and school employees received no explanation even after former teacher Paul Chapel had been in jail for months. Local school board member Nury Martinez learned of it from the media. Chapel has pleaded not guilty to 16 counts of lewd acts and continuous sexual abuse of four students.

Previous policy specified no deadline for informing parents, creating the impression that L.A. Unified was deliberately withholding information, Deasy said.

But the district has been criticized for doing exactly that. Some say the school system has resisted issuing any notification, even under pressure.

When contacted this year about a former music instructor accused of misconduct, for example, Hamilton High Principal Gary Garcia said parents and students had received no information about the teacher. Nor had he, Garcia added.

At the time, the district was being sued by a former student of Vance Miller’s, who alleged that the two had a sexual relationship when the boy was Miller’s student. Miller, through an attorney, has denied wrongdoing. The district fired Miller in February.

One reason for the enforced secrecy has been to protect the privacy of employees — who could be innocent — and of potential victims.

The district’s prior policy, in 2008, does not require any public or parental notification. It simply specifies that any release of information must be authorized by senior officials.

A 2006 policy had required notifying only the parents or guardians of possible victims.

“We believe that the new rule strikes the proper balance” between informing parents and assisting law-enforcement probes, Deasy said.

The district is still developing notification rules when abuse allegations arise against other types of employees, such as volunteers, custodians, teacher aides or clerks.

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Judge refuses to lower $23-million bail for former Miramonte teacher

BerndtA Los Angeles County Superior Court judge denied a motion Wednesday to reduce the $23-million bail for former Miramonte Elementary School teacher Mark Berndt, who is accused of gagging, blindfolding and feeding semen to unsuspecting students.

Berndt, who remains behind bars, appeared in court as the judge transferred his case to the downtown criminal courthouse, where Berndt is scheduled to appear May 1 for a preliminary hearing.

Berndt pleaded not guilty last month to 23 counts of lewd acts against children. Among other charges, he is accused of placing a three-inch-long Madagascar cockroach on his students' faces and mouths.

After court, Berndt's attorney, Victor Acevedo, said he was concerned for the safety of his client.

"He has been the subject of harassment by fellow inmates," Acevedo said. 

The alleged victims were boys and girls ages 7 to 10. The acts allegedly occurred from 2005 to 2010.

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Photo: Mark Berndt, right, the former Miramonte Elementary teacher facing 23 counts of lewd acts against children, consults with attorney Victor Acevedo during Berndt's earlier arraignment at L.A. County Superior Court. Credit: Al Seib / Los Angeles Times

Ex-Miramonte teacher Mark Berndt to appear in court in abuse case

Mark Berndt in court Feb 21 2012Former Miramonte Elementary School teacher Mark Berndt is scheduled to appear in a Los Angeles courtroom Wednesday for a hearing to determine whether there is enough evidence for him to stand trial.

Berndt pleaded not guilty last month to 23 counts of lewd acts against children. Among other charges, the former teacher at the Florence-Firestone school is accused of telling his students they were going to play a "tasting game," in which they were blindfolded and in some cases gagged with tape, authorities say.

Berndt also is accused of placing a three-inch-long Madagascar cockroach on his students' faces and mouths.

The alleged victims were boys and girls ages 7 to 10. The acts allegedly occurred from 2005 to 2010.

Following Berndt’s arrest, a second Miramonte teacher, 49-year-old Martin Bernard Springer, was accused of lewd acts against children, and Los Angeles Unified School District officials closed the school for two days while they revamped its staff.  

The case set off a media frenzy, but at his client’s arraignment, Berndt’s attorney Victor Acevedo urged the public to withhold judgment until all the facts in the case were in.

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Photo: Mark Berndt in court in February. Credit: Al Seib / Los Angeles Times

L.A. school board considers faster firings for sexual misconduct

L.A. school board members announce resolutions addressing the way the LAUSD handles sexual abuse allegations.
The Los Angeles Board of Education is scheduled to vote Tuesday on proposals that could make it easier to fire employees accused of misconduct and to inform parents about them. But some of the board's plans would need the approval of the state Legislature or voters.

The proposals, by board President Moncia Garcia and board members Tamar Galatzan and Nury Martinez, were prompted by the attention focused on sexual misconduct after the January arrest of former teacher Mark Berndt, who worked at Miramonte Elementary School in Florence-Firestone. He is accused of photographing students blindfolded and being spoon-fed his semen as part of what he allegedly called a “tasting game.” Berndt has pleaded not guilty to 23 counts of lewd conduct.

Berndt was able to resign and negotiate a settlement of $40,000 for back pay and health insurance costs after the school board voted to fire him. He also receives a state pension of nearly of nearly $4,000 a month as well as lifetime health benefits from the Los Angeles Unified School District.

On Tuesday, the board is expected to vote on a proposal that would require a change to state law to strip pension and benefits from a school employee convicted of the sexual abuse of a minor, even if the employee resigns prior to formal dismissal. It also seeks changes in state law that would give the Board of Education final authority for dismissing teachers. That power currently rests with an independent hearing panel consisting of two teachers and an administrative law judge. The state Legislature or the state’s voters would have to approve such changes to the law.

The second board resolution relates to fallout from parent anger over not being notified about problem instructors. Parents at Telfair Elementary in Pacoima were not told for months that teacher Paul Chapel had been jailed for the alleged molestation of several students.

This motion does not rely on revising state law. Instead, it calls on L.A. schools Supt. John Deasy to come up with rules on what to tell parents when a teacher is arrested, under investigation or simply pulled suddenly from a classroom because of a misconduct allegation.

It also would make some of Deasy’s recent initiatives part of approved board policy. One provision backs his effort to keep indefinitely all records of allegations of sexual or physical abuse. It also would authorize his plan to create a centralized, confidential database of allegations of sexual or physical abuse and harassment that are made against employees.

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Photo: LAUSD board members Tamar Galatzan, left, and Nury Martinez, on Monday announce proposals that would bring changes to the way the L.A. Unified School District handles child sexual-abuse allegations. Credit: Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times

Sexual misconduct by teacher alleged at Compton middle school

Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department detectives are investigating allegations that a male teacher at Compton's Davis Middle School engaged in sexual misconduct with female students, a department spokesman said Friday.

"Special Victims Bureau detectives are investigating allegations of inappropriate sexual behavior" on the part of the teacher, Deputy Peter Gomez said.

The investigation was opened Thursday evening. Detectives interviewed school personnel and other witnesses Friday, Gomez said.

The teacher was not identified and no further information about the investigation is being released at this time, he said.

The Davis Middle School investigation is the latest in at least half a dozen cases of alleged sexual misconduct between school employees and students in Southern California since the arrest last month of Miramonte Elementary teacher Mark Berndt.

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Audit of L.A. Unified sexual-misconduct policies authorized

Photo: Mark Berndt. Credit: Los Angeles County Sheriff's DepartmentA state committee on Wednesday authorized a comprehensive audit of procedures to protect students from sexual abuse in the Los Angeles Unified School District.

The move comes in the wake of the arrest of former Miramonte Elementary teacher Mark Berndt and others for alleged sexual misconduct. L.A. Unified officials said they welcome the inquiry as compatible with their own ongoing efforts.

The audit was requested by Assemblyman Ricardo Lara (D-South Gate), who represents part of the Miramonte attendance area and who chairs the 14-member Joint Legislative Audit Committee. Thirteen members were present Wednesday and, after about 90 minutes of discussion and testimony, all voted both to approve and prioritize the audit, Lara said.

“I am very happy that we’re going to be able to get some answers, not only for the victims and families, but also to try to bring some clarity to this whole process, ensuring that our kids are safe in schools," Lara said. "I’m glad LAUSD is working with us.”

The probe would likely look closely at six sample schools, possibly including two elementary schools, a high school and an independently managed charter school.

The audit is expected to begin in the next week or so and last close to eight months, at a cost of at least $300,000.

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Photo: Mark Berndt. Credit: Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department

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L.A. Now is the Los Angeles Times’ breaking news section for Southern California. It is produced by more than 80 reporters and editors in The Times’ Metro section, reporting from the paper’s downtown Los Angeles headquarters as well as bureaus in Costa Mesa, Long Beach, San Diego, San Francisco, Sacramento, Riverside, Ventura and West Los Angeles.
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