Post-Penn State Paranoia Moves West

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It’s hard to imagine an elementary school where the challenges would be greater: 1,500 students in one building, almost all of them from impoverished families. Parents working two, sometimes three jobs, with little time to be involved in school activities. Many don’t speak English, some are illegal immigrants, afraid to speak up or challenge any authority.

Nevertheless, according to the Los Angeles Times:

The school was on the upswing. Test scores were rising. The campus south of downtown Los Angeles was bright with new paint, murals and $6 million in other improvements. A new principal brought in parent education workshops, student leadership programs and other activities.

Then, three things happened at Miramonte Elementary School.  First, a veteran teacher, Mark Berndt,  was arrested and charged with 23 counts of lewd contact with children – a term which sanitizes what he allegedly did. Authorities say they have DNA evidence and hundreds of pictures  including some showing students blindfolded and gagged, pictured with spoons containing a milky substance that authorities allege was Berndt’s semen .  Then a second teacher, Martin Springer, was arrested on three counts of lewd contact with children.

But for the 1,400-plus students who were not abused, the worst blow was the third. In an apparently-unprecedented act of collective posterior protection, officials of the Los Angeles Unified School District transferred the teachers.  All of them. And all the administrators.  And all the secretaries, custodians, playground aides and other support staff.  Or as school superintendent John Deasy put it “[every] single solitary adult at Miramonte.”  So for every one of the students, whoever that one person was who worked at the school and always said ‘hello’ or cheered him or her up when things weren’t going well – that person is gone.

They’ve all been sent to an empty building on a school campus under construction nearby.  An entire new staff was brought into the school.  Every student now must get used to a new teacher, and new teachers for art and music and phys ed (though with all the budget cuts, I’m not sure how much of that still exists in Los Angeles schools).

The students are expected to simply adjust to all this.  Oh, wait, there also will be a “counselor” in every classroom – and we all know counseling fixes everything.

Every teacher must get to know and understand an entire new group of students.  They must try to pick up where the previous teacher left off, without interrupting the children’s progress.

The transfers come just before the all-important standardized tests and parent teacher conferences.  One can imagine how the conferences will go.  “I’m sorry, Ms. Lopez, but which one is your daughter again?”

Deasy justified the action the same way child protective services workers so often justify what they do to children.  From another Times story, here’s the school bureaucrat’s equivalent of “err on the side of the child”:

Officials emphasized that no other educators at the school are under suspicion but that a bold act was needed to help remove the cloud over Miramonte.  "I cannot have another student tell me he is afraid," Deasy told parents at the meeting.

"The primary responsibility, bar none, is safety and support.... Clearly, several individuals have violated the most sacred trust we have," Deasy said.

Right.  Want to really make a first grader afraid?  Make everyone he’s comfortable with in his entire school disappear.  They certainly don’t look terribly reassured here.

Later, Deasy decided to smear the whole staff, declaring that everyone had to be transferred in order to find out if there had been a “culture of silence” at the school, though there is no evidence that other faculty or staff new about, let alone covered up the alleged abuse.

What’s really going on, of course, is that both the school district and law enforcement have come under fire for botching the investigation in all sorts of ways up to now.

But it also looks like a large dose of  post-Penn State paranoia is involved.  The Penn State revelations led to firings up the chain of command all the way to the President of the University.  Looks like John Deasy and his fellow bureaucrats weren’t about to let that happen to them – no matter how many students have to suffer in the process.

And, while not as important as the rest of the harm, there’s another consequence: In a school district facing a $557 million budget deficit, a district considering ending all early education and art programs,  an entire school’s worth of staff sits idle while another entire staff, mostly recalled from prior layoffs, is brought in to replace them.

The best hope for the Miramonte students might be the grievances that scores of their former teachers are filing through their union.

That should be a reminder to some of my liberal friends, including some in the family preservation movement, who have joined the right-wing rush to scapegoat public employee unions, especially teachers’ unions.  Their theme has been that the unions care only about themselves while school administrators, like, say, John Deasy, should have untrammeled power because they will put the students first.  It’s much like the argument of CPS workers who say parents only care about themselves, while they, the CPS workers, are standing up for “children’s rights.”

Miramonte is a useful reminder of what school administrators do with the power they’ve already got.

Some Miramonte parents approved of all the transfers, at least at first.  But many others protested, to no avail.  So some current and former students went to the school to try to say goodbye.  According to the Times:

Student Nancy Gonzalez waited for Chanelle Thomas, her fifth-grade teacher who she said would stay after school to help struggling students and relentlessly hunt down their families for conferences about them.

Cristal Estrada, 14, went back to see Danilo Escalante, a teacher she said taught her not only reading and math but also about how to fight for your beliefs and work hard for success.

Esteban Rodriguez, 6, said his teacher, Petra Suvia, gave out presents of pencils and erasers, stickers and sharpeners, and he wanted her to return.

[Oscar Proa, a 19-year-old former Miramonte student] frets that his sister, who tested proficient in reading and math last year for the first time, will backslide because of turmoil.

"The school had been improving so much, but now this happens and it's all destroyed," he said.

Richard Wexler is Executive Director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, www.nccpr.org