On Thursday, the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) announced a new mandate that schools notify all parents within 72 hours if a teacher is removed from a classroom for allegations of sexual misconduct with students.
To protect the presumption of innocence, parents won't be informed of the teacher's name, grade level or other identifying information, a district spokesman told KTLA.
In a statement, Superintendent John Deasy acknowledged that the policy change comes after a recent "spate of cases" involving sexual misconduct accusations.
The most infamous case this year is the Miramonte School scandal, in which parents were not notified for nearly one year that teacher Mark Berndt had been suspended from his job in Feb. 2011, due to a Los Angeles Sheriff's Department investigation. It wasn't until his arrest on Jan. 31, 2012 that news of the investigation came to light -- both to parents and to the public.
However, Thursday's official statement offers no guarantee that a Miramonte-like information gap won't happen again. In fact, law enforcement could still advise the district not to notify parents within a 72-hour time frame pending the needs of their investigation, which is exactly what happened in the Mark Berndt case.
During Deasy's Feb. 6 press conference to announce the replacement of the entire Miramonte school staff, he compared the district's decision to keep quiet on Berndt's investigation to a private citizen following the orders of the police. "We take [the police's] lead, just like we did from the beginning," said Deasy. "Like you, if the police tell you to do something, we do it also."
But when it comes to investigations about teachers' sexual misconduct, Deasy isn't a private citizen. He's another public employee, responsible to and accountable for the second largest school district in the nation.
When news of Berndt's arrest first broke, parents slammed the district's decision to keep silent on the investigation. Gloria Polanco, the mother of a second and third grader at Miramonte, expressed her concern to the Associated Press on the day of Berndt's arrest. "My concern is why, if the principal knew this in advance, why didn't he inform us?," asked Polanco. "How long has he been doing this?"
Allice Winfield, whose grandson attended Miramonte at the time, said to AOL Latino the day after Berndt's arrest that the school was playing "macabre games" with children's lives. "The school had a great threat, and they never told anything to anybody."
That's what makes this situation a "damned if you do, damned if you don't" scenario, according to Tom Lyon, an expert on child witnesses and a professor of law and psychology at USC's Gould School of Law.
"You really have to appreciate the bind this puts the school district in," said Lyon to The Huffington Post. "If they don't tell, the parents will be upset. If they do, they run a real risk of undermining the investigation by tainting the testimony. By the time it gets to trial, if most of the victims only came forward only after the story hit media, the prosecution's case is undermined."
While he praised the LAUSD's decision to handle every accusation on a case-by-case basis, Lyon also cautioned that the new policy still runs the risk of inciting a panic. "It doesn't matter if you don't tell the parents who the teacher is, they're going to find out. Rumors will be floating around, and parents may even start aggressively questioning their children. Then you may have another McMartin case on your hands."
Lyon was referring to the McMartin preschool case, in which hundreds of accusations leveled against preschool operators in 1983 were eventually dropped after years of investigation and litigation because none of the claims were ever substantiated.
In the case of Miramonte, in which Berndt is accused of documenting his alleged lewd acts with hundreds of photographs, police identified 23 alleged victims with the help of school administrators. These victims and their parents were notified of the suspected abuse but told to keep the investigation to themselves, which means the larger school community was kept in the dark. But by the time Berndt was arrested, there were still a handful of children depicted in the photos that had not been identified -- which means their families were not notified, and the children did not benefit from the therapy and counseling that the district offered the identified alleged victims.
"Although I agree that parents have a right to know, it's even more powerful to argue that their right to know may need to bow to the needs of the state when it comes to successfully keep the perpetrator off the street," said Lyon. "As a parent myself, I'm not sure I'd want to know if it would prevent that person from being kept away from kids in the future."