Thursday, February 16, 2012


Long Beach Press Telegram Editorial |

2/12/2012 ::  One word can say a lot. In current headlines, one proper noun says too much to bear. "Miramonte" conjures up images of blindfolds, cockroaches and semen. The name of an L.A. elementary school connotes locked doors, codes of silence and secrecy. It is synonymous with a week of news about child molestation in area schools, followed by angry protests, parent lawsuits and a crisis of confidence in teachers and administrators.

The task now is to make Miramonte synonymous with the creation of confidence-repairing reforms.

Where do schools go from here?

The first step is for Los Angeles Unified School District officials, and the people in charge of K-12 education all over Southern California, to figure out what they've learned at Miramonte Elementary and other schools implicated in this shocking series of revelations.

There are patterns in the stories of the arrests of Miramonte teachers Mark Berndt (charged with 23 counts of lewd acts with children) and Martin Springer (charged with committing three lewd acts with one girl), the arrest of Germain Elementary janitor Paul Adame (suspected of committing a lewd act with a child), the firing of Hamilton High music teacher Vance Miller (accused of molestation in two civil suits), and the jailing of Telfair Elementary teacher Paul William Chapel (charged with molesting four children).

Clearly it's too easy for school administrators to miss what is happening on their campuses. If the charges are accurate, Berndt was able to get away with locking classroom doors and playing a sick game with his young victims for five years, before a film processor brought suspicious photographs to the attention of Redondo Beach police; Chapel's abusive behavior went on for seven months, involving a boy and three girls.

Just as clearly, once schools do know something bad is happening, they tend to reveal too little to comfort concerned parents. It was a year after the investigation of Berndt began, and eight months after he resigned from his job, that Miramonte parents learned about the suspected child molester. It was four months after Chapel was jailed that Telfair parents heard the news. From Miramonte, in the Florence area, to Telfair, in Pacoima, moms and dads complained about the secrecy.

Solutions to these problems will not come easily. If the goal is to provide a safe environment for school children to learn and play in, then camera surveillance could be helpful but also could create an oppressive atmosphere.

Properly, there are concerns about tarring individuals' reputations. School officials think they've got lawsuit problems because of these incidents of child molestation; imagine if they identified staff members suspected of this most shameful crime and then found out the investigations would produce no official charges.

Perfection is unattainable. But there must be policy changes that would make children safer and keep parents better informed. This is partly the responsibility of teachers' unions, too. In the most dramatic application of a frequent theme in education debates, it has to be possible to fire sick-minded teachers, just as it must be possible to fire simply ineffective ones.

At the LAUSD, it appears Superintendent John Deasy will not err on the side of under-reaction. Deasy's apparently unprecedented decision to replace the entire 120-person staff at Miramonte angered some educators and some parents. But the housecleaning sent the message that the district put the highest priority on restoring trust.

Remember when California school officials thought budget cuts would be their most painful crisis this year?

Amid the flood of news that flowed from the Jan. 31 Miramonte revelations, the public and the press have shown they are willing to hold their noses and talk about the unpleasant topic of child molestation.

Now it's up to education and law-enforcement officials to use this moment to talk it over, to revise their procedures, and to make sure the chapter titled "Miramonte" ends with something positive.

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