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Sex Scandals at Schools

The news that two teachers at Miramonte Elementary School are accused of lewd acts with children in their classes sent shock waves throughout the working-class South Los Angeles neighborhood. Reacting to parental outrage, Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent John Deasy moved swiftly to announce that the entire staff of the school will be temporarily transferred with full pay to a school under construction for the balance of the school year ("Staff of Miramonte replaced pending sex abuse inquiry," Los Angeles Times, Feb. 7). Their places were filled on Feb. 9 by teachers and other staff members from a rehiring list at a cost of $5.7 million for the remainder of the school year ("L.A. Unified faces hefty costs from Miramonte School scandal," Los Angeles Times, Feb. 9).

Deasy claims that he had no other choice for his unprecedented action under the circumstances. He justified his decision by saying that his primary responsibility is the welfare of the children. But transferring en masse the entire faculty and administration when no charges have been leveled against them is overreacting. The president of Stop Educator Sexual Abuse, Misconduct and Exploitation, a Las Vegas-based advocacy group, said: "It's the most severe action I've seen taken by a school district." Little wonder. Because of Deasy's strategy, the education of children will be disrupted by the disappearance in the middle of the school year of familiar teachers who know their abilities.

Moreover, his plan to assign a psychiatric social worker to every class and interview every student who attended Miramonte is risky. By doing so, Deasy sets the school district up to repeat the same mistakes committed in the infamous McMartin Preschool case in Los Angeles County that made headlines from 1983 to 1990 ("McMartin preschool trial," Wikipedia). What seemed at the outset to be a clear case of sexual abuse of toddlers turned out to be casebook hysteria. The defendants were ultimately found not guilty in the longest and most expensive criminal trial in this country, but their lives were ruined.

One of the most important lessons learned from the McMartin witch trial is that young children are highly suggestible. Several hundred children were interviewed by Children's Institute International. Videotapes of the interviews were later reviewed by Dr. Michael Maloney, a British clinical psychologist and professor of psychiatry who is considered an expert witness in cases involving interviewing of children. He concluded that the techniques used were coercive and tendentious, violating the guidelines in California for the investigation of children. It's important to note that one girl at Miramonte has already recanted her accusation that she was fondled ("Second accused South LA teacher fired, charged," Los Angeles Times, Feb. 8).

None of the above is intended to detract attention away from the despicable acts allegedly committed by the two teachers. The safety and well being of children must always be paramount. But great care must also be taken not to allow concern for children to run roughshod over the reputation of other teachers who are innocent in this appalling matter. It's a delicate balancing act that demands fairness for all concerned. But don't count on that.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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