Miramonte teacher pleads not guilty

Mark Berndt sat silently, staring straight ahead in a packed courtroom. Five sheriff’s deputies surrounded him. The former teacher appeared unkempt and unshaven in an orange jumpsuit.

Berndt is being held at the Twin Towers jail. His public defender, Victor Acevedo, accused the sheriff’s deputies of refusing to give Berndt a razor to shave. He also told the judge the deputies are broadcasting Berndt’s location on a loudspeaker to other inmates and calling him a “child molester.” Outside the courthouse, Acevedo told reporters about his concerns.

“The concern is for his personal safety. We cannot have the sheriff’s department deputies acting in such a way to essentially put a ‘bulls eye’ on his head, so to speak. So that is my concern,” said Acevedo.

imageSheriff’s spokesman Steve Whitmore says the department hadn’t heard of the allegations until today’s arraignment. He says the department will investigate the claims.

High-profile attorney Gloria Allred, representing one of the alleged victims, worried about the allegations, as well as the media surrounding the case.

“I think we all have a stake in making sure that the defendant has a fair trial. That’s very important, I’m sure, to the defense, to the prosecution, and most of all to the alleged victims,” said Allred. “And hopefully nothing will interfere with that so that he would not have then grounds for an appeal if, as, and when he were convicted.”

Berndt is facing twenty-three counts of lewd acts. He is alleged to have photographed students being bound and gagged, and with a white liquid believed to be his semen. Berndt’s attorney requested today that the prosecution turn over every photo it has in evidence, something the District Attorney is reluctant to do. Spokeswoman Sandi Gibbons says the defense will get all the photos involving victims already identified in the case. The judge will look at the other photos in private to determine if the defense has a right to view them.

“The judge has agreed to look in a camera at other photographs that the defense says they want but at this point in time, it is either unidentified children or children that have been identified late,” said Gibbons.

Gibbons declined to say whether there will be any new charges as other children are identified. The preliminary hearing is scheduled to take place on March 28.

Fremont High School teacher arrested

imageAlain Salas, a teacher’s assistant and coach at John C. Fremont High School, was arrested by the FBI on Monday.

Members of the SAFE Team (Sexual Assault Felony Enforcement) took the 40-year-old into custody on suspicion of violating section 288.3 of the California Penal Code, which prohibits contact with minor with the intent to commit a sexual offense.

He is accused of contacting a 15-year-old girl both online and in person, with alleged sexual contact at the school, according to the L.A. Times.

Superintendent John Deasy has said in interviews with multiple media outlets that they first found out about the investigation when the FBI notified the LAUSD on Monday.

Salas has worked at Freemont since 2006 as a teacher’s assistant for special education students, and as a coach for the girls’ softball and volleyball teams.

His arrest comes just days after nearby Miramonte Elementary experienced a second arrest of one of their teachers, which prompted the school to temporarily replace its entire staff.

Held without bail in downtown LA, Salas is expected to appear in court today to face formal charges from the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office.

Crimes against Miramonte students may lead to immigration benefit

imageParents gathered last week to protest the school’s reopening with an entirely new staff.

With tears in his eyes Edgar, the father of a student at Miramonte Elementary says he wants to make sure his daughter is safe in the school. But he’s also afraid of speaking out. “I’m undocumented,” he whispers in Spanish. “I want to protect my daughter, but I have a lot to lose if they find out.”

The student body of Miramonte Elementary School is 98 percent Latino. How many students have undocumented parents is unclear. However, according to the school website, 56 percent of the students are English-language learners, and about one percent are considered “migrant” students.

As an undocumented immigrant, Edgar was hesitant about coming forward when he learned about the arrest of teachers Mark Berndt and Martin Springer, who have been charged with multiple counts of committing lewd acts against children at the school. But he attended a meeting at Miramonte last Thursday, where, in light of the sex abuse scandal involving the two teachers, parents were given the option of transferring their children to other LAUSD schools.

“I told them I didn’t trust them and that I would pull my daughter out of this school. Now a sheriff [deputy] is asking me for my name and information,” he says with fear.

imageMark Berndt, 61, was arrested in January on suspicion of committing lewd acts upon a child.

Another parent, Edward Ozuna, tries to calm Edgar down. “Brother, you have rights. You have to speak up. Just because you don’t have papers doesn’t mean you can’t report a crime. You have to, so it never happens again.”

Ozuna, a legal resident, has become a spokesman for many of the Miramonte parents who don’t have legal status in the country. “They’re afraid that if they speak or protest, they could get reported to immigration. And now, with the investigation, it’s worse, because the Sheriff department is doing it and they work with immigration,” he says.

Ozuna is referring to the Secure Communities program. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) program is designed to identify immigrants in U.S. jails who are deportable under immigration law. Agencies that participate in the program send fingerprints to criminal databases and give Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) access to information on the people they’re holding in jail.

The school is located in Florence-Firestone, an unincorporated area of South Los Angeles, under the jurisdiction of the L.A. Sheriff’s Department – and it participates in the Secure Communities program.

imageMartin Springer, another teacher at Miramonte, was arrested four days after Mark Berndt.

“We are not asking parents anything about their legal status,” affirms Lt. Carlos Marquez of the Sheriff’s Special Victims Bureau. “I met with all the parents that attended the parent town hall meetings and I told them in Spanish that they have nothing to fear, no matter what their immigration status. We are only seeking information that could help us in the investigation of this case.”

Marquez says they’ve received a “consistent stream of emails and phone calls from the beginning” from parents and former students and they’re following all leads.

“Parents should never be afraid to report a crime, whether they’re undocumented or documented,” says immigration attorney Nelson A. Castillo.

That may be easier said than done for some fearful parents. But cooperating with law enforcement could end up giving them an unexpected immigration benefit.

“The children were allegedly victims of sexual abuse, so that may make them eligible for a U Visa, which could grant them lawful status in the United States, if they are undocumented,” states Castillo. “If the children are U.S. citizens, their undocumented parents and unmarried siblings under the age of 18 may qualify for a U visa as indirect victims.”

That means that the whole family could be protected under the law.

What is a U Visa?

It’s a special visa granted to victims of a qualifying crime, who have suffered substantial physical or mental abuse. The crime must have occurred in the United States, in a U.S. territory, or violated U.S. law.

Among the types of crimes that qualify for a U visa: rape, torture, trafficking, incest, domestic violence, sexual assault, abusive sexual contact, prostitution, sexual exploitation, hostage situations, false imprisonment, involuntary servitude, slave trade, kidnapping, abduction, blackmail, extortion, manslaughter and murder.

The victim must cooperate with the law enforcement agencies in the investigation and/or prosecution of the perpetrators of the crime.

The prospect of gaining legal status could sound so appealing, it could prompt some parents to attempt to file claims that their children were victimized, even if they weren’t. But attorney Castillo strongly advises against it, saying the consequences could be dire.

“Filing any fraudulent immigration application may subject the parent to fines and jail if found guilty.” Even worse, he explains, it could pave the way for a case to be reviewed by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and to eventual deportation.

“Generally, all U visa applications are confidential. But, if USCIS determines that there has been fraud, they may refer the applicant or individual parent for investigation by immigration authorities.”

Lt. Marquez says they have no idea how many children have been victimized, but he recognizes that given the amount of years Berndt taught at the school, it’s highly likely there are many more than have currently been identified.

“We have received a lot of allegations where parents say we don’t have a picture, but it happened to my child. We’ve been interviewing those kids. Then we have to schedule interviews with that child and D.A.’s office. From there we have to determine whether we can add that child to the case. Depending on what the child tells us, we’ll know if we’re able to prove it in court,” states Marquez.

Last week, another 200 photos were discovered at the same photo lab where the first set was found in 2011. As of Monday morning, Marquez says they have determined 175 of photos of the second set contain children already identified.

“We just have 25 pictures we haven’t yet identified, but I’m not saying that we have 25 more victims,” explains Marquez.

Anyone with information on the Miramonte Elementary School’s sex-abuse allegations are urged to call the sheriff’s Special Victims Bureau at (877) 710-LASD; or Crime Stoppers, (800) 222-TIPS.

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.

Lawsuits filed in the Miramonte scandal

imageAttorney Gregory Owen addresses the media about the alleged crimes of Miramonte Middle School teacher Mark Berndt. Owens explains that some immigrant families of victims are reluctant to testify due to fear of deportation.

Immigration lawyers Jessica Dominguez and Gregory Owen are representing eight victims and their families in a lawsuit regarding the recent crimes that allegedly took place at Miramonte Middle School.

“I’m here to be the voice for the voiceless,” Dominguez said Thursday morning.

The two lawyers teamed up with CHIRLA, the Coalition for Human Immigration Rights of Los Angeles, in an effort to ask the families of victims to step forward and testify.

“Some of our families have been victims of other crimes in the past. They never reported them. They never reported them because they are afraid of being detained by ICE.”

Angelica Salas, the Executive Director of CHIRLA, has made a plea to families to step forward, offering security and sensitivity.

imageRaymundo, an undocumented immigrant and father of one of the alleged victims, speaks to the media about his fear to testify against Berndt. Raymundo kept his face hidden with his hood and sunglasses to protect his identity.

“CHIRLA and many other Latino and civil rights organizations will work arduously to ensure that there is sensitivity on the issues of immigration status throughout this investigation,” Salas said.

Attorney Gregory Owen said that he was shocked that these alleged crimes were able to go on for so long without any parents or faculty members finding out.

“The school has a duty to ensure their safety. . . This guy [Mark Berndt] locked his doors. That violates every school policy. Nobody knew it. Nobody stopped it.”

An undocumented immigrant by the name of Raymundo, a father of one of the alleged victims, braved the media scrutiny to attend the news conference. However, in an effort to protect his identity, he covered most of his face with a hood and dark glasses.

Dominguez translated the father’s statement.

“He’s still fearful that he can end up getting deported. But he wants other parents to be informed that they should protect their children and they should protect their rights.”

Salas called out to Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca, asking him to promise that the immigrant families who step forward will be safe from deportation. Salas believes that until that promise is made, several families will remain silenced by their own fear.