Miramonte Elementary students will be returning to a completely different school on Thursday after their two-day hiatus from the classroom. All of the school's teachers, administration and other staff will be gone, to be replaced by a new faculty that will finish out the rest of the school year with the children.
In a press conference at South Region High School on Monday evening, Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent John Deasy confirmed the decision to relocate Miramonte's 120-member staff to an off-site building, where they will undergo extensive interviews and evaluations in the wake of the arrests of two teachers accused of lewd acts with children.
The superintendent took pains to emphasize that the re-location and evaluations were not "a condemnation of an entire staff." However, the superintendent also acknowledged that the district's investigation could help staff "come to terms about what they may know" about Mark Berndt and Martin Springer, the two teachers accused of inappropriate behavior. If any new facts were to come to light through the interviews, Deasy added, the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department could take over the district's investigation at any time.
"I can't have any more surprises at Miramonte," Deasy said candidly, "but if there are more, then we will have to deal with that."
Additionally, Deasy announced, all current and former Miramonte students within LAUSD will either be interviewed by the district investigators or the Sheriff's department. Like the teachers' evaluations, interviews with children will be used to identify those who need help or counseling, as well as to possibly uncover new facts about the mounting criminal investigations.
In between evaluations, Deasy said, former Miramonte teachers will be busy planning lessons, calculating grades and building a curriculum at the off-site location. So far, Deasy said he hasn't made a decision about whether the teachers will return to Miramonte or any other school after the evaluation period is over.
All of the teachers who have been removed will continue to receive their regular paychecks, which means that the district will be paying double to educate Miramonte students. "The last thing I'm worried about is a budget issue," Deasy said. "The number one thing I'm worried about is the students."
The new corps of Miramonte faculty is made up of LAUSD teachers who lost their jobs in budget cuts, new teachers and others who underwent a rigorous screening process, said Deasy. Each classroom will also have a psychiatric social worker to help support the new teacher during the transition.
Deasy emphasized that the school was not undergoing a "reconstitution" -- a term that refers to the strategic realignment of a failing school with a new administration. Instead, he cautioned against stigmatizing an entire staff based on the accusations against two teachers. "I'm mostly overwhelmed by how grieved they are. How upset they are. How broken their own personal trust is," Deasy said, reminding the gathered press that Miramonte teachers also felt partly victimized by Berndt and Springer.
Representatives from several education unions were present when Deasy announced his decision to the Miramonte faculty at a private meeting on Monday afternoon. The United Teachers of Los Angeles union responded to Deasy's decision in a statement that reads, in part:
UTLA leaders and staff have met with teachers at the school, and we are committed to doing everything we can to support the Miramonte community.
We support a thorough, vigorous and fair investigation of all allegations. It's everyone's responsibility to ensure that any and all allegations are thoughtfully and carefully investigated.
At Monday evening's press conference, Deasy did not address any questions about the criminal investigations, referring all inquiries to the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department. He also declined to address the fact that several families have since filed claims against the school district in the wake of Mark Berndt's arrest.
Earlier Monday, Deasy had announced the district's decision to approximately 1,200 Miramonte parents and family in the South Region High School auditorium. The venue was packed to standing-room capacity and dozens of families were not able to get in during the hour-and-a-half long parents meeting. Among those left outside, forms to petition a student transfer away from Miramonte circulated during the parents meeting.
The evening's announcement likely invalidated the need for a petition of transfer, since Deasy's decision effectively brings an entirely new school to all the Miramonte students. By his estimation, the LAUSD's actions are "unprecedented."
Miramonte mother Elizabeth Varela told The Huffington Post before the meeting that she had submitted an application to a magnet school for her 5-year-old son back last fall, before the investigations were made public. "I've never thought of Miramonte as a bad school," Varela explained, but "now we're hoping he's accepted." Still, she and her husband had misgivings about transferring her son in the middle of the academic year. "It's a whole new school, teacher and classroom," Varela had said about the potential new school. With the district's decision to replace the entire faculty at Miramonte, Varela's son will be facing those challenges either way.
A changing of the guard was the last thing that 19-year-old Umberto Sanchez was hoping for. The former Miramonte student had shown up with two friends at the district's parent meeting to show support for the teachers at the embattled elementary school. While waiting for the meeting to let out, Sanchez told the Huffington Post, "I'm here to support the other teachers who don't have anything to do with what's going on." His mother, who is friends with a Miramonte teacher, said that staff were anxious about their jobs while also grappling with the fact that they had an abuser in their midst.
Karla Rivas, a 20-year-old college student, also came to the parents meeting because her little brother was in 8th grade at Miramonte. Both she and her brother were former students of Springer. Rivas expressed dismay at parents who had shown up with signs and protest chants. "They're screaming that they want justice," she said. "What else do they want? [Berndt and Springer] are in jail already."
When pressed, she conceded that Miramonte parents were right to protest the district's decision to keep mum about Berndt's investigation until after his arrest, saying "parents have a right to know what's going on with their kids." But for her part, Rivas only remembers good things about Springer, the teacher who is accused of fondling two girls. She recounted how Springer once bought a television and necessities for a struggling school family with undocumented parents. "Yes, he was a role model," Rivas said simply.
CORRECTION: This news story has been updated to reflect the correct number of Miramonte staff being replaced. We regret the error.