The Horrors of Miramonte: After an L.A. School’s Sex-Abuse Scandal, Can the Children Be Healed?

A group of parents gathered across the street from an elementary school in a largely Latino neighborhood in South Los Angeles on Friday and took turns assailing its directors. Clutching a press release that had just been handed out by the school board, they were trying to process the news that a second teacher at their children’s school had been arrested on charges of sexual misconduct. They had also just learned that officials had known about the investigation for a year, and were furious at the school district for not notifying them sooner. “They don’t tell us what’s going on,” one mother griped in Spanish. “This has been happening for a long time, and they didn’t tell us,” said another with an angry look. “They need to put cameras in the classrooms for more security,” still another demanded.

The parents had already been dealing with the news, released a few days earlier, that Mark Berndt, a teacher at Miramonte Elementary School, had been arrested for allegedly committing lewd acts on 23 children between the ages of 6 and 10. Now came the news that another teacher, Martin Springer, had also been arrested on sexual-abuse charges. Berndt, who had taught at the school for 30 years, is accused of taking hundreds of sexually exploitative photographs of students. According to the Los Angeles County sheriff’s department, some of the pictures depicted Berndt holding up a blue plastic spoon filled with an unknown white substance to children’s mouths as if they were going to ingest it. A blue spoon found in a classroom trash can later tested positive for semen. Other photographs revealed scenes in which children had large cockroaches on their mouths, were blindfolded and had their mouths covered with tape. (See “Study: Child Abuse Affects More U.S. Kids than SIDS.”)

L.A. Unified Superintendent John Deasy said late Monday that he will replace the entire staff at Miramonte with a new group of teachers so the investigation can proceed without disruption. The displaced staff, a total of 128 people, will continued to be paid as they work at nearby schools. They may or may not return to the school once the investigation is finished, Deasy said. “He wants to conduct an investigation, speak to the staff and create classrooms of calm, stability and support,” school district spokeswoman Monica Carazo said. “In order to do those things, he’s going to relocate the entire staff to another school.” Officials will also put a psychiatric social worker in every classroom in case students or teachers need help coping with the situation. Dozens of parents led a demonstration outside the school on Monday, demanding beefed-up security measures for students. L.A. Unified said it canceled classes at Miramonte through Wednesday.

Most of the students at Miramonte are Spanish speakers. The school, situated in L.A.’s Florence-Firestone zone, serves a low-income area in which many families are from Mexico or Central America. Ninety-eight percent of its 1,400 students are Hispanic, 56% are considered English-language learners and some are from migrant families. All students at the K-6 school receive free or reduced-price lunches. Miramonte did not meet its proficiency target rates for standardized test scores in language and mathematics last year, according to its website.

Maria Torres, 33, said her son, who was taught by Berndt, used to talk about his teacher blindfolding some of the other students. “He felt left out because he didn’t get to play the game,” Torres said in Spanish in an interview. Crystal Ramirez, 21, who was Berndt’s student several years ago, said in an interview that while she was surprised about the allegations, she remembered the teacher exhibiting what she thought was odd behavior. “He was a nice teacher, but he was weird,” said Ramirez. (See “Sandusky Admits ‘Horseplay’ but Maintains Innocence.”)

The school district says that since the investigation began a year ago, it has provided psychological support like counseling to children who were known to be victims and is offering such services to new victims as they are identified. Assistance is crucial because it can be extremely difficult for children to overcome the psychological effects of abuse, says Ginger Clark, associate professor of clinical education at the University of Southern California. Clark says abuse is even worse when it occurs when children are still learning the primary language, because they don’t have a way to understand or communicate what is happening to them.

Despite the immense challenges, it is possible for a child to overcome the negative effects of such trauma, Clark says. “There are always people who cope, who cobble together what happened through various means,” she says. To do so, it’s most important for the child to get treatment at an early age, she says. It’s also helpful for children to have someone in their lives — at home, church or the therapist’s office — who supports them emotionally and lets them express their feelings about what happened. “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,” Clark says. It’s also important for a child to have family members who are comfortable talking about sexual issues. Otherwise, there is a risk that a child can be blamed for having participated in the sexual abuse, she says. (See “Why a Mandatory Child Abuse Reporting Law Could Backfire.”)

Still, other experts believe there is no way to undo the damage. Abuse by a teacher can shake a child’s sense of trust and stability because of the crucial role that educators play in kids’ lives, says Paul Abramson, a professor at UCLA who teaches a class on sex and the law. Often, teachers who abuse have created a close and friendly relationship with the child in a bid to prevent the child from telling others about the abuse once it happens. Such action from a trusted figure in a child’s life can create a lot of confusion and lead to posttraumatic stress disorder, anxiety or depression, he adds. “I don’t think they ever get over it,” says Abramson, who has been an expert witness in numerous trials involving sexual misconduct. “These kids are haunted about it. You see people who are 50 and are still traumatized about events that happened to them when they were 10.”

The parents at Miramonte don’t need these expert opinions to be livid about the state of their children’s school. Luis Castañeda, 30, says he is considering moving his three children to another school because he no longer trusts the teachers at Miramonte. His son, also named Luis, was in Springer’s class but says he didn’t see any strange behavior. “I feel very surprised,” the now fifth-grader says. Elisa Araque, the mother of a third-grader at Miramonte who wasn’t in either accused man’s class, says school officials should do more to prevent such abuse from happening. “I feel angry,” she says. “They do this with children that can’t defend themselves. They don’t know what’s happening to them.”