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School sex-abuse scandal: Troubled Miramonte reopens with new staff

February 9, 2012 | 12:25 pm

 The scene at Miramonte Elementary School on Thursday looked a lot like a normal first day of school, except for the deluge of news media, the phalanx of school district police officers and the news conference conducted outside the building by teachers union officials.

Inside, teachers were doing activities typical of a first day: learning student names and explaining class rules. But again, there were some anomalies -- sometimes the students were helping explain things to the teacher.

In Martha Cedeno's classroom, students directed her to where she could find the physical education schedule. And they explained to her that they were set to play volleyball.

FULL COVERAGE: Teacher sex-abuse investigation

"You are right," Cedeno said, after retrieving the right piece of paper. "Volleyball 71."

She paused: "What does 71 mean? Boys and girls, do you know? Is that the area you play?"

Miramonte Elementary, in the unincorporated Florence-Firestone area south of downtown, has been rocked with turmoil since the arrests last week of two teachers on charges of lewd conduct. Los Angeles schools Supt. John Deasy closed the school for two days and reassigned the entire staff.

For Cedeno, Thursday was the first day of class and her second or third day on campus. For her first-graders, it's the middle of the school year.

In other ways, Cedeno was firmly in command.

Early in the school day, she sat her 15 students in a circle around her and they introduced themselves with their name and favorite color. Then they could talk about their pet or their favorite animal and favorite toy. One student mentioned that she had a snake.

Gina said her favorite color was red, and she mentioned two dogs and two cats. But Gina Adelman is not a student; she's one of 45 counselors, one per classroom, assigned to the school.

Adelman, who is bilingual, also was on hand to greet parents. Eight or nine entered with their children and stayed for 20 minutes or so, she said.

Adelman said she was especially attuned to any evidence of trauma. She and Cedeno led the first-graders through an exercise of writing a farewell letter to the teacher who had been removed from her position after finishing work Monday. The school was then closed Tuesday and Wednesday.

Students were asked to draw a letter or picture to say goodbye to the former teacher-- there hadn’t been an opportunity for a formal goodbye.

Only one student alluded to the teacher arrests that exploded into public attention last week.

"You had to go because of somebody evil," recounted Adelman, paraphrasing what the student wrote.

Other students wrote things such as: "You were a good teacher," “I will miss you" or "We like you." Another promised to continue learning "even though you're not here."

A parent asked that the former Miramonte teachers be allowed to write notes back to students, to help the children achieve closure.

The previous teacher, whose name has not been released, had helped with the transition, Adelman said, talking about which children needed support, who seemed to be gifted -- and about the two boys who are neighbors and might need to be separated to prevent them from talking too much.

"This is a very bright group of kids," said Adelman, who typically would be working at a middle school in the San Fernando Valley.

By mid-morning, Cedeno knew the names of every student. The class has 18 enrolled; it wasn't clear if the three missing children were sick or kept home by parents.

The students were hardly distracted by visiting parents and a three-person media delegation as Cedeno explained a money game they would be playing.

"With the money you have left you can buy things from the magic box," she said.

"Cool!" several exclaimed in unison.

She also reviewed class rules: 1) Follow directions. 2) Keep hands, feet and objects to yourself. 3) Remember your manners. 4) Be ready to learn.

They also talked about what to do if someone does something that makes them feel uncomfortable. Cedeno was talking about interactions among classmates.

"Tell the teacher," a boy said.

On another side of campus, in a small forest of bungalows set on an asphalt playground, three district employees waited for parents seeking transfers to other schools. One parent was being helped in an adjacent room, but the three workers had no one to assist.

The district's first choice, said early-childhood specialist Angie Perez, was to have parents remain at Miramonte and feel good about it. But parents would be assisted with transfers, she said. Several other elementary schools within a two-mile radius have vacancies. And if parents asked about charter schools, which aren’t under district control, staff had information about those too.


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-- Howard Blume