Parents protest as Miramonte Elementary reopens

Parents meet at the end of the day to coordinate organizing efforts.

Miramonte Elementary reopened on Thursday morning after a two-day closure, following Superintendent John Deasy’s decision to replace the entire 128-member staff in the wake of a sex abuse scandal involving two teachers accused of molesting children at the school.

LAUSD officials and police officers were on site at Miramonte Elementary to ensure a smooth transition, as hordes of news crews descended on the school to catch a glimpse of the new teachers and students returning to class.

There were protests throughout the day, with some parents opposing the teacher removals. Many refused to bring the children to school – attendance was only 68 percent.

“This was such a radical change,” complains Eutalia Espinoza, mother of a nine-year old attending Miramonte. “How can they make innocent teachers pay for the dirty ones?”

“We don’t agree with what they did. The children were used to the teachers and so were we,” says Karina Alferez. “With all these new people, it’s as if our children are going to a new school.”

LAUSD officials and police officers were at the school all day.

Cynthia Contreras, whose sister Nicole attends first grade at Miramonte, thinks the school district was wrong to “take out all the teachers. Not all the teachers were bad…. They should have interviewed the teachers during the two days and done background checks again and then put them back in school.”

Contreras, a fluent English speaker who has been assigned the family task of attending parent meetings and dealing with school issues, says her little sister is distraught over losing her teacher.

“Miss Fong was very nice. I miss her,” says six-year old Nicole. That sense of loss was echoed by several other students who were listening to her reminisce about her teacher.

During the past two days, LAUSD rehired 80 laid-off teachers and brought back retired Principal Dolores Palacio to oversee the school. In all, Miramonte will have 169 new staff members, including 45 site counselors.

The estimated cost for the replacement staff, scheduled to remain at the school until June 30, is $5.7 million.

“What we did is unprecedented,” says Tom Waldman, LAUSD Director of Communications and Media Relations. “This district mobilized fast to make it happen.” Waldman emphasized the teacher relocation was to assist the Sheriff’s investigation without disrupting classes. “We couldn’t stop the school year.”

The Miramonte teachers have been temporarily relocated to the recently built August Hawkins High School, which has not yet opened for business. Those teachers have been given the week off.

Parents say media crews have disrupted their school.

According to Waldman, they are scheduled to report next week to the new school for about six and a half hours a day, where they will receive professional development training. Being in another school, he says, will make them accessible for interviews by sheriff’s deputies conducting the criminal investigation of teachers Mark Berndt and Martin Springer, who were arrested last week, charged with multiple counts of committing lewd acts against children at Miramonte.

“We will also conduct an independent inquiry… about policy issues, the process of screening teachers and how teachers should be vigilant of sex abuse signs,” states Waldman.

United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA), the union that represents the teachers, today accused the school district of doing a “cheap media stunt” by replacing the entire staff and is threatening to sue if the relocated teachers aren’t allowed to return to Miramonte after the investigation is over.

School officials organized three meetings to talk to parents throughout the day – one in the morning, another at 2:30 pm and the last one at 5:30 pm.

The main concern of parents who attended the 2:30 pm meeting was the safety of their children and whether this week’s interruption will affect their academic performance.

Edward Ozuna is demanding to see his daughter’s teacher credentials and background check.

Edward Ozuna didn’t bring his two daughters to school on Thursday. He says they were afraid of the new teachers and asked him to go to the school to find out what they were like. Ozuna took a third day off from work as a plant manager at a national architecture firm to check out the new teachers and attend the meetings.

“I feel better because we got some answers. I spoke with the teachers, the principal and the staff. I wanted to make sure my kids are safe.” He says he told Principal Palacio he wanted to see the credentials of his daughter’s new teachers and that she promised to have them ready for him tomorrow. Ozuna promised to return on Friday to see those credentials and bring his daughters to class.

“I don’t want them to miss any more days of school. But it’s going to be hard for them. They miss their old teacher. Mr. Vergara was great. The good teachers don’t deserve this… to be taken away like criminals.”

Ozuna had nothing but good things to say about his daughter’s teachers and of school principal Martín Sandoval.

“I’m upset the principal left. He was so good. In just two years since he came to the school, he improved academics. He motivated the kids. We want him back.”

A parent wears a t-shirt with the names of the teachers they want back in the school.

The sex abuse scandal at their school has mobilized Miramonte parents. They are now more vocal. They are demanding stricter background checks of teachers and that the school be more efficient in notifying them of any irregularities.

A group of parent volunteers gathered late in the afternoon to discuss how they would organize in the coming days.

“I want to make sure I know what’s going on,” says Yolanda Rivera, who has a five and an eight year-old at the school. “I want to make sure something like this never happens to us again.”

Authorities on Thursday discovered another 200 photographs, believed to be taken by Berndt. Some of the children in the new photos have been previously identified, but investigators say there may be other victims.

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