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Displaced Miramonte teachers recount their hurt and anger

At least 40 teachers and other staffers rally outside the South L.A. campus they were reassigned to following the arrests of two teachers on lewd conduct charges.

May 04, 2012|By Howard Blume, Los Angeles Times
  • Teacher Joyce Berwanger, center, takes a moment to comfort fourth-grade student Stacy Arroyo as teachers, students and parents from Miramonte Elementary School rally outside Augustus F. Hawkins High School in Los Angeles.
Teacher Joyce Berwanger, center, takes a moment to comfort fourth-grade… (Francine Orr / Los Angeles…)

Teachers who were removed from Miramonte Elementary School recounted their experiences for the first time Thursday, telling of public humiliation, lost sleep and questioning the pride they once had in the teaching profession.

At least 40 teachers and other displaced staff members took part in a rally outside Augustus Hawkins High School in South Los Angeles, the unopened campus where they have reported for three months.

Their removal followed the January arrest of former teacher Mark Berndt, who has pleaded not guilty to 23 counts of lewd conduct. He is suspected of taking photos of blindfolded students being spoon-fed his semen as part of an alleged "tasting game." Deputies arrested a second teacher, Martin Springer, on unrelated lewd conduct allegations days later. He also has pleaded not guilty.

L.A. schools Supt. John Deasy announced Feb. 6 that he would replace the entire Miramonte staff — 85 teachers and about 25 others — for the remainder of the school year to restore confidence in the school.

At the rally, a few teachers read statements from colleagues who were not identified.

"All of us have been publicly punished and humiliated for the alleged acts of one person," a teacher wrote in one statement. "I no longer tell people I'm a teacher. Until very recently, I was proud to be one."

The teacher continued: "I haven't had a good night's sleep since January, and I'm unsure of my future and the outcome it will have upon my family."

Local area administrator George McKenna said he had urged the staff to see "the total picture."

"What happened to them was difficult because they were not guilty of any actions that would warrant criminal or administrative repercussions," McKenna said. "They're only part of the investigative process, but they are not suspects."

The school district has not allowed the teachers to be interviewed at Hawkins, and the union also had urged the teachers not to speak publicly.

At the rally, held to protest the district's actions and call for the teachers' reinstatement, one wrote about having to leave the campus.

"I recall feeling shocked and numb. Never did I imagine leaving Miramonte this way. I was expected to pack up ten years in two days."

Another wrote: "I was overwhelmed with so many emotions: sadness, embarrassment, humiliation, anger, anxiety and fear.... As I walked in and out of offices, strangers occupied our space."

One instructor talked of a bond with her special education students. "The teacher that replaced me is highly qualified ... but she must try to fix the damage done to my students caused by my abrupt removal from the classroom."

The transferred employees include those who also are parents of Miramonte students. They have not been allowed on campus to drop off or pick up their children, or to meet with a teacher during school hours.

At Hawkins, teachers have been placed six to a room. They requested coffee pots and refrigerators. Some put up bulletin boards with family photos or farewell letters from students "so we would remember we're more than this investigation," one teacher said in an interview. Her remarks were interrupted several times by students rushing up to give her long hugs.

At least 150 students and parents from Miramonte also took part in the demonstration. Two mothers pushing strollers led a procession of marchers.

"They cannot all be guilty, and they are not," said parent Maria Lujan, objecting to the treatment of teachers.

Sometimes teachers had little to do at Hawkins. Other times they had group meetings with district counselors or officials, where they openly expressed anger or grief.

"It was surreal and I thought to myself, 'What did I do to deserve this?' " a teacher wrote. "For six weeks we were kept in the dark, no new information or interviews from anyone."

They also had training in new curriculum and on teacher evaluations, lesson design and peer review.

Along with law enforcement, L.A. Unified also conducted an investigation. Most teachers have been cleared and it was possible all would be soon, McKenna said.

Ingrid Villeda, a teachers union official in South L.A., said sheriff's deputies asked teachers for help identifying students in photos. School district investigators interviewed employees over two days, she said.

The teachers' futures remain in limbo. A new school will open to relieve overcrowding at Miramonte, so there won't be positions for all former teachers. If necessary, they would work with full pay as substitutes until they find a position, McKenna said.

The Hawkins campus retains the look of a minimum-security prison. Until recently, it was surrounded by an eight-foot construction fence. Entry is through a gated parking structure with a security camera.

One teacher, Maria Miranda, spoke openly at a recent teachers convention. And her email to a colleague was posted online.

"I feel powerless and have lost my sense of purpose," she said. "I was angry in the beginning but now I'm just disillusioned."

She signed it: "Blue at Augustus Hawkins."

howard.blume@latimes.com

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