By James Nash & Edvard Pettersson, Bloomberg News - http://bloom.bg/XMaX4v
Feb 28, 2013 1:57 PM PT :: Seven Los Angeles public school teachers and aides have been charged with molesting more than 50 children in just over a year, though you’d hardly know it from the campaigns for next week’s municipal election.
None of the 11 candidates for the board that oversees the second-largest U.S. school system mentioned the abuse allegations in a League of Women Voters survey. Four out of five candidates for mayor, a job with no formal power over public schools, have spoken little of it.
In South Los Angeles, with two of the highest-crime divisions of the Los Angeles Police Department, parents worry more about getting their children to and from school safely than the possibility of sexual abuse at the hands of a teacher. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg
The Los Angeles Unified School District, which has fired almost 8,000 employees since 2008 to bridge budget gaps, faces millions of dollars in damage claims from the alleged incidents. Yet the issue has barely resonated, said Susan Kovinsky, a co- founder of a parent advocacy group.
“Parents should be outraged over this,” said Kovinsky, who helped start the Lemonade Initiative in 2009 to protest school staff reductions. “When you look at where these schools are, they’re all low-income.”
Candidates may see little value in making a political issue of the abuse cases, said Octavio Pescador, 42, an instructor at the University of California, Los Angeles and City Council candidate.
“In many immigrant communities -- and I’m an immigrant myself -- the culture is that you intervene as little as possible in the institutions in the community,” Pescador said. “That means you drop your kid off at the school and wave goodbye.”
About three-fourths of the district’s 656,000 students are Latino, and about 80 percent are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price meals, according to the district website.
In high-crime neighborhoods of South Los Angeles, parents worry more about getting their children to and from school safely, said Marqueece Harris-Dawson, president of Community Coalition, an advocacy group.
“People feel pretty stuck given all the issues that are pressing in education,” said Harris-Dawson, who moderated a debate among school board candidates Feb. 13. “This gets pressed in with all of the others.”
At the forum, Harris-Dawson asked school board President Monica Garcia and her four challengers about how the district should handle future allegations against teachers. None of the challengers criticized Garcia or other district officials over past incidents, Harris-Dawson said.
Garcia is backed by the Coalition for School Reform, an independent-expenditure committee that has spent $2.4 million on Los Angeles school board races, according to the City Ethics Commission. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg in February donated $1 million to the coalition. The mayor is founder and majority owner of Bloomberg News parent Bloomberg LP.
The Los Angeles district has about 30,000 teachers and 6,000 aides in 900 traditional schools and more than 180 public charter schools.
“In a district this size, a lot of bad things are going to happen,” said Scott Folsom, 65, vice president of health and parent education for the Parent-Teacher Association. “However, I am very critical of the district in terms of public outreach.”
Folsom said school officials have erred on the side of presuming accused teachers innocent and failed to inform parents of allegations. The culture of the district has been to deal with accusations internally, rather than to immediately notify police and child-protective services, Folsom said.
“The school district has a very rigorous process that’s mandated by state law to report allegations of misconduct,” said Sean Rossall of Cerrell Associates Inc., a public-relations firm hired by the district’s legal team. “The district takes accusations of misconduct very seriously and follows the reporting process according to state law.”
A series of allegations began coming to light in January 2012 with the arrest of two teachers a week apart for separate incidents at Miramonte Elementary School, located in a neighborhood with a 98 percent Hispanic population.
The first was Mark Berndt, a former third-grade teacher who taught at the school for 30 years. He was described as 61 years old when he was arrested and charged with molesting 23 children, ages 7 to 10, in a statement from the district attorney’s office. He pleaded not guilty.
Berndt came under investigation after a film processing company contacted police about photos “depicting children in a classroom with their eyes blindfolded and tape covering their mouths,” prosecutors said in a statement. Berndt’s lawyer, Manny Medrano, declined to comment on the allegations.
Berndt alone is at the center of 189 claims for damages from the children and their families, according to Rossall.
A second Miramonte teacher, Martin Bernard Springer, 50, was charged with three counts of lewd acts involving a girl under 14, according to prosecutors. He pleaded not guilty. Daniel Kolodziej, a lawyer who represents Springer in a civil case against the district, didn’t return a call for comment.
Following Springer’s arrest, the entire teaching staff of the school was ordered reassigned by Superintendent John Deasy, pending investigations.
In the ensuing months, a third-grade teacher at another school pleaded no contest to molesting six boys and seven girls; a high-school coach pleaded no contest to “an inappropriate relationship” with a 15-year-old girl; a female Spanish teacher was charged with unlawful sexual intercourse with boys ages 16 and 17; and a part-time teacher’s aide was charged with molesting a 12-year-old boy he’d met while coaching after-school sports.
Just last month, a fourth-grade teacher employed by the school district since 1974 was charged with molesting 12 girls.
Former state Senator Martha Escutia, a lawyer suing the district on behalf of victims over some of the incidents, called for an investigation into whether “known abusers were intentionally assigned or moved by LAUSD officials to the poorest and mostly Latino schools,” according to a statement.
Escutia compared the school abuse cases with sexual crimes by Roman Catholic priests in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, where she said a disproportionate number occurred in poor and Latino communities. Files released as part of a legal settlement with abuse victims showed that Cardinal Roger Mahony transferred priests accused of abuse rather than reporting them to police.
The school abuse cases are already proving expensive. A Los Angeles superior court judge in January ordered the district to pay $6.9 million to a boy repeatedly molested by a fifth-grade teacher in 2008 and 2009. The school system is self-insured for the first $3 million to $5 million per occurrence, Rossall said.
It is remarkable that the District – in the grip of ®eform, Inc. and fiscal crisis has managed to fire 8,000 teachers who did nothing wrong and yet has difficulty being rid of seven teachers who allegedly molest children. This is not Irony, it is Shakespearean - or perhaps even Greek tragedy – short only a tragic hero. I suppose if Monica Garcia is defeated in the primary she will nominate herself for the rôle.
I did my interview with the reporter before Mayor Bloomberg made his $1 million contribution to the Reform Coalition.
- At the time of the interview the reporter was working on the child abuse story and hadn’t really figured out the school board race angle – though I may have led him in that direction. I certainly said that I view the election as a referendum on Deasy.
- After Bloomberg made his gift I figured the story would be killed.
Folsom said school officials have erred on the side of presuming accused teachers innocent… is neither a direct quote (there are no quotation marks) nor is it contextually accurate. I said I believe in the fundamental presumption of innocence – that is not error – but I also said that the protection of children trumps the presumption of innocence of the accused. School officials repeatedly erred here.
The story’s premise: that the Child Abuse angle is not being discussed in the campaign or the media is unfortunately+alarmingly true.
The primary funders of both sides of the campaign:
- The so-called ®eformers (who are really the pro-status quo-incumbents) have no interest in that story because their culpability is evident. The abuse and subsequent mishandling happened on their watch!
- The UTLA Faction also has no interest in airing the dirty laundry – primarily because they have allowed the ®eformers to frame the argument that the union is protective of “bad teachers”. The unresponded-to Big Lie becomes true with age.
Karl Rove – the prince of propaganda and manipulator of media – said that he who frames the argument wins the argument. This is doubly true when you can bury your opponent’s response in money, cable TV ads and/or campaign mailers.
Poor Antonio Sanchez in Board District #6 who is taking both sides’ money. He must be hiding under a rock!
- ….and who knew the the District’s Legal Department had hired a PR firm?
- The same one that
mismanagedhandled the Cortines employee sexual harassment fiascosituation..