LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - In an attempt to regain parents’ trust, educational officials said on Monday they are replacing all staff at a Los Angeles school where two instructors are accused of having sexually abused children.
Police on January 30 arrested Miramonte Elementary instructor Mark Berndt, who they say placed cockroaches on students’ faces and offered them spoonfuls of a substance found to be semen. Four days later they arrested another teacher, Martin Springer, on suspicion of molesting two students.
The arrests angered parents with children in the school, which is located in a poor and largely Latino area near South Los Angeles, and raised serious questions about oversight on the campus.
“The superintendent feels the changeover is important given what is happening in the school,” said Tom Waldman, a spokesman for Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent John Deasy.
The school district decided to replace the staff to “restore confidence in the school with the parents, give it a fresh start,” Waldman said.
Even though troubled Miramonte ranks as one of the largest elementary schools in the nation, with about 1,400 students, replacing its staff can be done as many qualified teachers are searching for jobs, Waldman said.
Deasy met on Monday with parents of children studying at Miramonte. Earlier in the day, dozens of parents staged a protest rally outside the school.
Berndt, 61, was charged with 23 counts of lewd acts on children. He remains jailed on bail of $23 million.
His arrest followed a year-long investigation that began when a drug store photo processor turned over pictures to police that showed students blindfolded and with their mouths covered with tape.
Some of the pictures, which were taken in a classroom, showed students with a milky substance held up to their faces that was later determined, through DNA analysis of a plastic spoon, to be Berndt’s semen, Los Angeles County sheriff’s officials said.
In some cases, children were pictured with large, live Madagascar-type cockroaches on their faces and mouths, the Sheriff’s Department has said.
Four days after Berndt’s arrest, police took Springer into custody on suspicion of molesting two students, who were both girls about 7 years old, authorities said.
Captain Mike Parker of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department said last week an initial investigation did not find the two cases are connected, other than the fact both Springer and Berndt taught at the same school. Publicity surrounding Berndt’s arrest led to authorities receiving the complaints against Springer, Parker said.
Springer, 49, has not been formally charged, but he was scheduled to appear in court on Tuesday.
United Teachers Los Angeles, the union representing teachers in the city, said in a statement it supports a “thorough, vigorous and fair investigation of all the allegations.”
Miramonte Elementary has over 100 staff members, according to its website.
The displaced staff will continue to be paid and will receive counseling, Waldman said. The school district plans to replace the staff over the next two days, when the campus will be closed, he said.
Because of layoffs from budget cuts in recent years, the district has many teachers on a re-hiring waiting list who can move in to open positions at Miramonte Elementary, he said.
Reporting By Alex Dobuzinskis; Editing by Tim Gaynor