After two teachers were arrested for molesting students, the school district imposed dramatic measures -- but the public's trust may already be shattered.
A few years ago, after a spate of teachers in Las Vegas were arrested for sex-related crimes involving students, I interviewed the human resources director of one of the nation's largest school districts to ask what measures were in place to prevent such grievous abuses of trust.
The district already was fingerprinting potential hires, checking all references and cross-checking with the FBI database to make sure there was no criminal trail that had been masked by a move from one state to another. She told me she wished someone would invent a device that would detect "a black heart" in anyone who would work with children.
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Such a device might have been useful at a Los Angeles elementary school, where two teachers are accused of sexually abusing students -- with some of the allegations stretching back over two decades. Parents demanded action, and this week L.A. Unified Schools Superintendent John Deasy responded by temporarily replacing the entire campus staff at Miramonte Elementary.
Even so, Deasy's decision wasn't enough to quell the outrage or fear of some families, like Nancy Linares, whose granddaughter is a Miramonte student. "Instead of asking, 'Did you learn something today?' I asked, 'Did someone touch you?'" Linares told the Los Angeles Times.
Sadly, stories of teachers being accused of molesting students are not uncommon. But the details of the charges against Mark Berndt, who began teaching at Miramonte in 1979, are abhorrent enough to shock even hardened police investigators.
What students thought was their teacher's so-called "tasting game" actually involved him blindfolding them and then feeding them his own semen, according to police reports. Police say they found hundreds of photographs, apparently taken in his classroom, that document the abuse. Berndt faces 23 felony counts.
The L.A. Times interviewed students and families who say complaints about Berndt's behavior stretched back to at least 1991, although the investigations never resulted in charges. Shortly after Berndt's arrest, two families at the school reported allegations of sexual abuse of their children by another Miramonte teacher, Martin Bernard Springer, who started at the campus in 1986. He was arrested last week.
The replacement of an entire school staff -- although the L.A. Times reports it might be a temporary move at Miramonte -- is an extraordinary measure. In 2010, the entire staff of Central Falls High School in Rhode Island, including the principal, was fired (and later rehired) by the superintendent. But that move was based on poor achievement, rather than allegations of malfeasance or abuse.
Terri Miller, president of Stop Educator Sexual Abuse and Misconduct and Exploitation, a national advocacy organization, said she understands the frustration of parents who believe school administrators failed in their obligations to protect students.
"They had kids come forward and no one believed them," said Miller, whose organization provides advocacy and support for victims of sexual abuse by school employees. "Too often school systems think they have to substantiate allegations before they take action. That's not what the law says-they are mandated to report when they suspect abuse."
Background checks for anyone who works with children obviously make sense, but such measures only catch individuals who are already known to law enforcement. Stopping abusive situations like what's alleged to have occurred at Miramonte first requires that someone speak up. High marks should go to the local drugstore clerk who police say called authorities after some of Berndt's photographs raised suspicion.
Unfortunately, in most cases of alleged child sex abuse, the real picture might not be so easy to see.
This post also appears at The Educated Reporter, an Atlantic partner site.