It all started when students at Los Angeles' Miramonte Elementary School and their parents learned last week that a longtime third-grade teacher, Mark Berndt, had been arrested for allegedly committing lewd acts on 23 kids in his classroom. A few days later, a second-grade teacher at the same school, Martin Springer, was arrested on charges of groping a 7-year-old girl. Then, late Monday, Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent John Deasy yanked every single one of the school's 128 teachers, janitors, administrators, and cafeteria workers, placed them in another school, and brought in an entirely new staff at Miramonte — all so investigators could find out who knew what, and when. Here, a look at this "sordid" scandal:
What exactly are the teachers accused of?
The charges "are both horrible and weird, in the least pleasant sense of that word," says KJ Dell'Antonia in The New York Times. Berndt, 61, allegedly played bizarre "tasting games" with some students in his classroom, where he would blindfold them, put cockroaches on their face, and feed them his semen on a spoon or cookie — then photograph the lewd ritual. He was actually removed from school a year ago, after a film-processor turned some of the disturbing photos over to the police. Springer, 49, was charged with inappropriately touching a 7-year-old girl in his classroom.
How long did this go on?
That's a big focus of the school district's investigation. Berndt had been at the low-income, heavily Latino grade school for 32 years, and the Los Angeles Times says students and parents have come forward in recent days with complaints reaching back as far as 20 years. In announcing his "clean sweep" of Miramonte, Superintendent Deasy said investigators will dig to see if there was a "culture of silence" at the school.
Is there any connection between Berndt and Springer?
Investigators say they know of no connection. But Brian Claypool, a lawyer for some alleged victims, tells the New York Daily News that his clients say Berndt and Springer were "best buds." Claypool also alleges that a third teacher, a female in a neighboring classroom, was involved in the abuse, handpicking pretty girls from her class for Berndt's sick games. "The conspiracy theories have to be going nuts in that community," says Jeanne Sager at The Stir. "And I don't blame those parents one bit."
Is replacing the entire school's staff really necessary?
"We intend to interview every adult," from principal to playground helper, Superintendent Deasy told parents. "I mean every single solitary adult who works at Miramonte." But many students, and lots of their parents, say it's disruptive and unfair to yank all the teachers, since most or even all of them had no part in this scandal. I disagree, says Monica Bielanko at Babble. "Replacing the staff shows dedication to making it right and doing everything within their power to not let it happen again." Count me unimpressed, says The Times' Dell'Antonia. "The message I hear is, 'We don’t know how to know whom to trust.'" That doesn't inspire a lot of confidence.
Will the abused children be alright?
Let's hope so. Along with well-vetted replacement teachers, a psychiatric social worker is being placed in each Miramonte classroom. "There has to be someone in their life who can re-create a trusting relationship with the child to undo the idea that they can't trust anybody," says Ginger Clark at the University of Southern California. Sadly, "I don't think they'll ever get over it," says UCLA's Paul Abramson. Predatory teachers do a lot of damage, and "you see people who are 50 and are still traumatized about events that happened to them when they were 10."