LA abuse charges prompt awkward talks for parents

Associated Press + More

By MICHAEL R. BLOOD, Associated Press

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Sinister allegations of abuse by at least two teachers in a Los Angeles school have forced awkward discussions as parents warn youngsters that people they trust — pastors, teachers, even relatives — might do things that could hurt them.

It was a grim reminder of risks faced by kids, even within the safety of school walls.

Sergio Vasquez, 30, said he talked with his daughter for 45 minutes after she watched a news report about the disturbing cases that prompted the Los Angeles Unified School District to replace every employee at Miramonte Elementary School, located in a poor neighborhood about 8 miles from downtown.

With his 8-year-old daughter Hayley at his side, he said he told her to speak up if she sees anything suspicious, or if any teacher tries to manipulate her by giving her candy, or touching her hair or shoulders.

"We told her her body is private and nobody has the right to touch her," said Vasquez, as he stood outside an elementary school near downtown. "No teacher should put his hands on you and tell you 'Oh how beautiful you are.'"

Kari Morales, who lives in the city's Echo Park neighborhood, teaches her 5- and 6-year-old children about keeping up a guard.

"It's necessary, especially now, with priests, with anybody. You can't trust anybody. I talk to my kids all the time," she said. "I just tell my kids, 'If you feel something is not right, you need to say something.'"

On Wednesday, investigators revealed they seized 200 additional inappropriate photographs of children allegedly taken by teacher Mark Berndt, who is accused of blindfolding and gagging students and having some eat cookies iced with his semen. A second teacher, Martin Springer, faces three lewdness charges for allegedly fondling a second-grader.

Both teachers have been fired.

The line between what is appropriate and what's not can sometimes be difficult for younger children to discern — Berndt is accused of feeding semen to children during bizarre "tasting games" in his classroom over a five-year period.

"A big challenge is parents will often emphasize 'stranger danger' when talking with children, but we know the biggest risk to kids is from people they trust," said Thomas Lyon, a professor of law and psychology at the University of Southern California, who has researched child witnesses and abuse and worked as an attorney on child-abuse cases.

Young children don't need a scientific anatomy lesson, he said. They need to know "if they feel weird, if they touch them in a certain place, how important it is for them to tell a parent."

He added: "You have to emphasize to your child that you will not get angry with them for anything they've done. Otherwise, the child will say, 'Why should I tell?'"

It's a persistent problem. According to the state Commission on Teacher Credentialing, 365 cases involving allegations of adult sexual offenses in schools were opened in the five years ending last June.

Initially, the Los Angeles school district fielded a steady stream of calls from alarmed parents at Miramonte, after details of the bizarre case trickled out. Los Angeles County Sheriff's Sgt. Dan Scott said the department has received dozens of tips following the arrests of Berndt and Springer.

"At this point, all I can tell you is there's a lot," Scott said.

But officials in several neighboring counties said the Los Angeles arrests have not caused a surge in fearful calls from parents or new reports of suspected abuse.

Berndt, 61, taught for 32 years at the South Los Angeles neighborhood school, where the 120-member staff, from janitors to principal, was replaced following outrage among parents. Springer, 49, pleaded not guilty Tuesday after he was charged with committing three lewd acts upon one girl in 2009.

Molly Gomez, 31, said she told her son to tell her if anyone touches him inappropriately. Her 10-year-old boy, who has autism, has struggled with bullying at school and doesn't understand why he can't walk to school by himself like other kids his age.

"I don't know if he understood me," she said, adding that she planned to talk with him again.

___

Associated Press writers Noaki Schwartz and Greg Risling contributed to this report.

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.