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LA Chief To Replace School Staff in Wake of Sex Abuse Investigation

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The entire staff of a 1,500-student Los Angeles elementary school will be relocated while the district and police investigate allegations that two teachers at the school performed lewd acts on children enrolled there.

John E. Deasy, the superintendent of the 664,000-student Los Angeles Unified School District, stated in a letter that prescreened staff members new to the school will start teaching at Miramonte Elementary School by Thursday, and stay until the end of the year. Each classroom will include an instructor and a counselor.

In addition, the letter says, the district will offer counseling services to all students at the school, past and present. The district also plans to work with an independent commission led by a retired California Supreme Court judge, which will "review our processes and provide recommendations so that every LAUSD school can learn from this experience."

"Some might see this as an extreme measure but this is an extreme circumstance. I need to take action within the scope of what I can control," Deasy said in his letter.

Monica Carazo, a spokeswoman for the school system, told Education Week that 128 teachers and front-office staff are moving to a school building that is opening next year and currently has no students. The janitorial staff is also moving, and the employees will stay there until the end of the school year or "until the superintendent sees fit," she said. The teachers who will be moving to Miramonte Elementary come from the ranks of teachers who had been laid off from the district because of a budget deficit, she explained.

The moves at Miramonte Elementary were made after the arrest Jan. 30 of Mark Berndt, who is described as a well-liked teacher who had taught at the school for 31 years. The Los Angeles Times reports that in late 2010, a photo technician at a convenience store saw pictures of young children blindfolded and with tape over their mouths, and reported the photos to authorities. During the investigation, police say they saw pictures of students with a blue plastic spoon with a milky white substance held near their mouths.

Police found a spoon and container in his classroom and they tested positive for Berndt's semen. The paper reported that Berndt told his students they were playing a "tasting game." Other pictures reportedly showed children with a three-inch Madagascar roach on their faces or mouths.

Berndt was removed from the school in January 2011 after district administrators saw the pictures, and as the district prepared to fire him, he retired. He was arrested a year later and charged with 23 counts of lewd acts against children. He is in custody, with bail set at $23 million. (Read Deasy statement on Berndt's arrest here.)

Three days after Berndt's arrest, a second teacher at the school, Martin Springer, was arrested on charges that he fondled two 7-year-old students in the classroom, the Los Angeles Times reported. Both teachers knew each other, and would sometimes take their students on joint field trips, according to the Times. Springer, who was charged with lewd acts upon a child, is being held on $2 million bail. (Read Deasy statement on Springer's arrest here.)

No statements were available today from either of the accused men or their lawyers.

The allegations shocked the school community, many of whom pulled their children from the classroom. Some demanded that all the teachers at the school be investigated. Deasy's letter does say that "every former Miramonte student and staff member" will be interviewed.

"I am not going to wait for any other surprises at Miramonte," Deasy said.

Photo: Parents from Miramonte Elementary School turn out to meet with Los Angeles School Superintendent John Deasy at South Region High School in Los Angeles on Feb. 6. (Francine Orr/Los Angeles Times/AP)

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