1 teacher in LA sex abuse case free on bail

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By CHRISTINA HOAG, Associated Press

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Some students wrote farewell letters to their former teachers. Even though it was the middle of the school year to them, it was the first day for the new staff of an elementary school where every worker was replaced following the arrests of two longtime teachers on lewdness charges.

"You had to go because of somebody evil," one first-grader wrote, according to counselor Gina Adelman. Others wrote "you were a good teacher" and "I will miss you."

Miramonte Elementary School students returned to class for the first time Thursday since the entire 120-member staff was replaced in an unprecedented move by the Los Angeles Unified School District.

The day got off to a rough start with the teachers union president assailing the reassignment of teachers as a stunt and about 100 parents and students blasting the move.

United Teachers Los Angeles President Warren Fletcher said teachers were being "tarred and stigmatized for no reason" and that grievances would be filed against the district on behalf of some 85 reassigned teachers.

"It is crystal clear that LAUSD doesn't have a plan," Fletcher said. "They're making this up as they go along, and students at the school are paying the price."

Superintendent John Deasy said the makeover was needed to clear the school from a cloud of distrust and suspicion stemming from the arrest of former third-grade teacher Mark Berndt. The 61-year-old has been charged with 23 counts of lewd acts upon children, ages 6 to 10, accused of feeding his semen to some students during "tasting games" in his classroom from 2005 to 2010.

A second teacher, 49-year-old Martin Springer, has pleaded not guilty to committing three lewd acts on one girl in class in 2009. He was freed on bail early Friday, though the Los Angeles County sheriff's department said he was fitted with a court-ordered electronic ankle monitor.

About 100 parents and children protested with signs saying "Give us our teachers back" and chanting "no new teachers" as TV cameras rolled.

Parents attended a meeting with the new principal, but many emerged dissatisfied, saying the district went overboard.

"My son liked his teacher," said Jose Vargas, shaking his head.

Deasy said replacing the staff, from janitors to principal, was necessary to restore trust among parents in the largely poor, Latino neighborhood of unincorporated Los Angeles County.

Whether any of the previous staff will return to Miramonte will be determined after the district completes its investigation into how Berndt's alleged activities went undetected for so long, he said.

The teachers were told via a notice of administrative transfer that on Monday they will report to a nearby unfinished high school, where they will be interviewed while the investigation is ongoing.

In the classrooms they left behind, children and teachers were adjusting.

In Martha Cedeno's first-grade class, pupils told her where to find the gym schedule and explained they were to play volleyball, according to a pool report.

Parents were offered the option of transferring their children to another school. District employees were on hand to give parents information about other schools in a two-mile radius and charter schools.

Parents said children were confused since they were just getting to know their teachers.

"It's kind of hard," said Lorena Soriano, whose sixth-grader attends Miramonte. "You barely know your teacher, and they're gone. The kids don't know what's going on."

The new hires, which include a retired principal, 81 teachers and dozens of support staff, will cost the cash-strapped district $5.7 million, said district spokesman Thomas Waldman. The new staffers were recently laid off and were on a rehiring list.

The district also faces potentially millions of dollars in legal costs as lawsuits are filed. Three lawsuits were filed on Tuesday, and claim notices have been filed for at least four other lawsuits.

A number of parents have opted to file lawsuits instead of going to sheriff's detectives because they are illegal immigrants and are afraid they'll be deported.

Assemblyman Tom Ammiano said he will reintroduce a bill this month that will protect children and domestic violence victims from deportation.

"What does it say about our society if parents won't speak to the police when their children are in danger?" Ammiano asked. "Enough is enough. Every parent regardless of immigration status deserves access to the police and to know that their children are being protected."

The lawsuits allege the district and Principal Martin Sandoval failed to adequately safeguard the students against Berndt and Springer.

The school's reopening follows revelations that 200 more inappropriate photos of children were discovered, and that one teacher sent birthday cards and presents to students who participated in his games.

Many of the photos involve children already identified by authorities, but there may be other victims, authorities said.

Like the pictures that first alerted authorities to Berndt, the photos show children ages 6 to 10 blindfolded and being fed a milky, white liquid that authorities believe was semen on spoons or cookies.

Berndt taught for 32 years at the South Los Angeles school. He remains jailed on $23 million bail and could face life in prison if convicted.

The furor over his arrest led two parents to come forward last week to complain about Springer, who had worked at the school for 26 years. One girl has since recounted her allegation against him.

Detectives said there is no evidence that the two men acted in concert.

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