02/09/2012 05:28 pm ET

Miramonte School Scandal: Tensions Erupt Between Teachers Union And School District

Tensions have finally erupted between old adversaries in the wake of a burgeoning molestation scandal at Miramonte Elementary School. After weeks of an outward show of support for one another, the leaders of the Los Angeles Unified School District and the United Teachers Los Angeles union have snapped over the removal of the school's entire faculty.

On Thursday morning as Miramonte School re-opened with an entirely new group of teachers, UTLA president Warren Fletcher took to a podium on the school's front lawn to slam schools superintendent John Deasy and declare the district's wholesale relocation of the school staff "nothing more than a cheap media stunt." Fletcher claimed that after a week of meetings between the union and the district in which educators were assured of returning to their original jobs pending an evaluation, the teachers received an "administrative transfer notice" while they were transitioning classrooms to the oversight of the replacement faculty. The union leader described the notices as a "disciplinary transfer" that barred them from returning to their original jobs at Miramonte and said that teachers felt "betrayed."

L.A. Schools superintendent John Deasy vehemently countered Fletcher, saying on 89.3 KPCC's Patt Morrison show that the UTLA's statement was "patently and factually inaccurate" and "ludicrous on its face." On Thursday afternoon, Deasy confirmed that the teachers would be returning to Miramonte after the district's investigation into what he has described as the school's "culture of silence."

"Promises were indeed broken," Deasy said on the radio show. "They were broken to students, but they weren't broken to adults." The superintendent also expressed incredulity that Fletcher would disrupt the students' first day back at Miramonte instead of "helping bring normalcy and stability to the school."

The Los Angeles School District announced their decision to remove the entire faculty of Miramonte and relocate them to a separate facility on Monday after two teachers at the school were arrested for lewd acts with students. Ex-teacher Mark Berndt stands accused of committing lewd acts on dozens of children and documenting the abuse with approximately 600 "bondage" photos that depict the children bound and gagged, often either with cockroaches on their faces or about to eat what investigators allege is Berndt's own semen. Teacher Martin Bernard Springer, who just received a vote of termination from the school board this week, was accused of fondling one student at the school.

During his announcement of the faculty replacement on Monday, John Deasy initially said that he had not yet made a decision about when and how to re-incorporate the original teachers once they cleared a lengthy evaluation process.

Initially, the union released a statement in support of Deasy's plan to relocate all the staff. In part, the statement reads, "UTLA leaders and staff have met with teachers at the school, and we are committed to doing everything we can to support the Miramonte community. We support a thorough, vigorous and fair investigation of all allegations. It's everyone's responsibility to ensure that any and all allegations are thoughtfully and carefully investigated."

As students returned to Miramonte Thursday morning, the campus was a noisy mix of protest shouts, guitar strums, media cameras and child victim advocates who passed out fliers about how to recognize sexual abuse. Others in the community passed out petitions calling for Deasy to bring the original teachers back to school, and children with backpacks stood on the lawn with signs or surrounded the pathway leading to the interior school yard. Together, families chanted, "We want our teachers back" and "Si se puede" at the other students who entered the interior school grounds.

One Miramonte teacher, who requested anonymity because faculty members are currently barred from making statements to the press without the district's approval, told The Huffington Post that Deasy's decision to remove all the teachers was "disappointing and disheartening." He was among a group of teachers in "A Track" who were set to return to school on Feb. 21. Because this teacher happened to be on vacation when Deasy announced the replacement of the entire faculty, he didn't get the chance to join the others who were called to the school to collect their belongings and pack up their classrooms. Now he's currently barred from entering Miramonte's gates and said, "I feel bad and I miss my students."

He's set to join other original Miramonte teachers at a meeting on Thursday morning at UTLA headquarters, where the union will discuss the staff's next options once they are relocated to the new, student-free building on Monday.

"Kids are very resilient and I hope they will flourish [with a new teacher]," the teacher said. "Of course," he admitted, "I would have liked them to be with me."

Ellen Morgan, a spokesperson for the LAUSD, declined to comment about Fletcher's claim that teachers had received administrative transferral notices immediately after he made them. But she did say that the new teachers' orientation on Wednesday went "extremely well." New teachers were partnered with the social psychiatric workers, with whom they will be working for the rest of the school year.

Wednesday afternoon, the new faculty met with the previous teachers to discuss how to transition the students to a new routine. "It was like trying to fit three weeks into one-and-a-half days," said Morgan. "So that was a tough job for the teachers who were leaving, as well as for the new teachers who are coming in."

In total, the new hires will cost the school district $5.7 million. Morgan defended the cost of the counselor for each classroom, saying, "There needs to be an assessment of that classroom. We don't know what that classroom is going to be like, and it's better to err on the side of helping students as opposed to not having enough resources."

The LAUSD confirmed that only 68 percent of Miramonte students showed up for class on Thursday. On Monday, the schoolday after Springer was arrested on suspicion of lewd acts, more than a quarter of the student population also did not attend school.

Adriana Siordie, who has three children at Miramonte, chose to send them to school on Thursday. She told The Huffington Post in Spanish that, "at the end of the day, they have to study" and felt that "everything's going to be ok," whether or not all the original teachers return. She did have one suggestion for the district, though: cameras in the classroom to keep teachers accountable.

Parents-only meetings were scheduled three times throughout the day for families to be introduced to the new principal and teachers. Rey Ceballos, who has two children enrolled at Miramonte, was not impressed by the meeting. In Spanish, she told The Huffington Post, "They didn't say anything. It's the same old thing." When asked if she wanted the original teachers to return eventually, she said, "maybe the good teachers."

While her children are attending school today, she had understood why some parents chose to keep their kids at home amid the upheaval. "It's their right. Every person decides what's best for them."


Mark Berndt's Alleged Lewd Acts Rock Miramonte School