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Los Angeles Parents Powerless as Candidates Ignore Abuse

Los Angeles Parents Powerless as Candidates Ignore Abuse Charges
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

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.

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.”

Latino, Poor

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.

‘Bad Things’

“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.”

Misconduct Reports

A report in November by the California State Auditor found that the school district failed to properly report at least 144 cases of child abuse allegations to state authorities.

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.

189 Claims

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.

Inquiry Urged

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.

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