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Miramonte aide's love letters to pupil investigated

The student's mother says school officials and sheriff's deputies ignored her complaints at first. L.A. Unified officials say they are having trouble finding any record of the employee, saying she no longer works for the district.

February 08, 2012|By Dalina Castellanos and Howard Blume, Los Angeles Times
  • Los Angeles School Police Officer Ron Chacon comforts 8-year-old Roberto Alvarez, who was weeping over temporary removal of teachers from Miramonte Elementary School.
Los Angeles School Police Officer Ron Chacon comforts 8-year-old Roberto… (Irfan Khan/Los Angeles…)

In June 2009, the mother of a fourth-grader made a discovery that is now the latest incident under investigation at Miramonte Elementary School: a teacher's aide was allegedly writing love letters to her 11-year-old son.

One letter, meant as a short-term farewell note, included a passage that the mother found especially disturbing: "When I was writing this letter, I was crying. My heart was breaking into pieces," wrote the teacher's aide, who has been identified as Areceli Luisjuan. "Oh! I didn't tell you that I like when you put your arm around my shoulder, and if I told you not to do that it's because I don't want to put you in trouble, but I like it…"

The episode has become the subject of a law enforcement inquiry and an internal review by the Los Angeles Unified School District. According to the mother, however, sheriff's deputies and the school system failed to take her seriously the first time she brought the matter to their attention.

The second look is part of a wide-ranging review of everything and everyone associated with Miramonte, a school that exploded into public attention with last week's arrest of veteran teacher Mark Berndt.

Berndt, 61, faces 23 counts of lewd conduct charges for, among other things, allegedly taking pictures of students who were being spoon-fed his semen as part of what he called a "tasting game."

After Berndt's arrest, allegations emerged against a second teacher, Martin Bernard Springer, 49, who was charged Tuesday with fondling a 7-year-old girl in his class.

The Berndt case in particular has raised questions about whether the school properly handled misconduct issues in the past.

The love letter was first detailed in a July 2009 article in Hoy, a Spanish-language publication that is part of the same publishing group as The Times. In interviews with The Times this week, the mother recounted her experience in Spanish.

Efforts to reach Luisjuan were unsuccessful.

"When you get close to me, even if you give me the chills I like that," continued the letter, which is written in English. "Don't tell nobody about this!" (The word "chills" is underlined.)

At the bottom, the writer penned the student's name four times, signed it "Sad Girl" and then added: "Read the letter and throw it away. I don't want your mom or brother to find it."

The mother, whose name is not being released to protect the identity of her son, a minor, said she believes there were about three letters, although she only had one to show to a reporter. The first item she found, in 2009, was a drawing of a crying woman that also was labeled "sad girl."

She noticed the drawing when it happened to tumble from its perch in her son's room. The fall also dislodged a cellphone number from a corner of the frame. When she confronted her son, he showed her two letters.

The crying picture, she later learned, was prompted by Luisjuan's pending relocation to a nearby middle school. The transfer apparently was planned before the mother complained, she said.

The mother, who said the aide appeared to be in her 50s, immediately went to see her son's teacher. But the teacher told the mother that she could get into trouble for making up stories.

In an incident with Berndt, children who reported that he appeared to be masturbating behind his desk were reportedly told the same thing, a former Miramonte student said.

The mother in the latest case said she is struck by the resonance with her experience.

"When the mother abuses her kid and they find out at school they throw all the authorities at you," she said Tuesday. "But what happens when it's the other way around? I couldn't do anything."

She did not produce the letters at the time of her first complaint.

She said she next went to the Sheriff's Department, which directed her to return to the school to handle the matter.

At a second meeting, those present included the mother, her son, the teacher, Luisjuan and an assistant principal.

According to the mother, Luisjuan admitted writing letters and drawing the picture. Luisjuan compared her affection to that of a grandmother for a grandson, the mother said. The mother was sent home, but not before she insisted on a written record of the meeting, which she kept.

"Why would they pay attention to me?" the mother said. "I'm a single mother and Mexican."

The aide delivered the final letter, the one quoted above, on the same day as the meeting, June 23, 2009. She also allegedly gave the boy a gift: a crystal, heart-shaped bowl full of candy.

When asked about the incident by Hoy, L.A. Unified spokeswoman Gayle Pollard-Terry said that "as of today" Luisjuan no longer works for the school system.

This week, district officials had trouble finding a record of either the employee or what had happened. It was being researched, spokesman Thomas Waldman said.

dalina.castellanos@latimes.com

howard.blume@latimes.com

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