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Miramonte Elementary teachers to speak out after months of silence

Vanessa Romo/KPCC

Students outside Miramonte Elementary School demand their teachers return to the classrooms. L.A. Unified Superintendent John Deasy ordered their relocation to an unopened campus after two teachers, in two separate cases, were arrested for lewd acts upon children.

Miramonte Elementary School teachers who were removed from their classrooms during the investigation into two teachers arrested for misconduct will speak publicly on Thursday, after nearly three months of silence.

The "UTLA South Area Action" will be held outside the unopened Augustus F. Hawkins High School in South Los Angeles, where the teachers have been placed since Feb. 9.

A march with posters and chanting will begin at 3:30 p.m. around the campus, and teachers will read anonymous statements from their colleagues about their experience, said Ingrid Villeda, chair of the United Teachers Los Angeles South Area, which includes Miramonte Elementary School.

The entire elementary school staff — including teachers, the principal, teaching assistants and cafeteria workers — was removed over two pupil free days in early February after teachers Mark Berndt and Martin Springer were arrested, in two separate cases, for lewd acts upon children.

Los Angeles Unified Superintendent John Deasy said at the time it was necessary to take drastic measures to ensure there were no more surprises at Miramonte and investigate how no one knew what was going on. 

All teachers are mandated reporters of any suspected child abuse under state law. Deasy said once the investigation is complete and teachers are cleared, they would be able to return to their classrooms.

"One of our biggest things is that this doesn’t happen again to any other school community," a Miramonte teacher who was removed by the district, told KPCC today.  

The teacher, requesting anonymity out of fear that returning to the school would be in jeopardy, said, "The community needs to heal together...Some of the teachers grew up in that community. A lot of others outside the classroom, TA's, cafeteria employees, they also grew up in the community. It's been really hard for them."

The roughly 85 Miramonte teachers who were relocated filed a grievance on Feb. 8 to ensure they would return to the school once the investigation is complete. But Villeda said district officials cited a "confidentiality clause" under the grievance process that does not allow the teachers to speak publicly about what is happening.

Union officials and staff said they have been told that teachers may face possible repercussions from the district, including not returning to the school, if they speak publicly. 

Deasy said he was not aware of this, nor could he comment on any particulars of such a clause, but he said it is "typical, we don't talk about grievances."

Speaking at union events, however, is protected, according to UTLA officials. And the Miramonte teachers have attended "every union meeting we can possibly attend, we’ve been everywhere even when they don’t want us, we’ve been to every area meeting. We were out in a [May Day] rally yesterday. We’ve voiced concerns and concerns for our students and what they have to go through. It's not that we've been silent, like people think we have," the Miramonte teacher said.

"We need people to know that we have been advocating for ourselves and our students from the very very start, it’s just that we’ve been doing it from our UTLA floor rather than using the media," the Miramonte teacher said.

Nine teachers attended a graduation ceremony held today at Miramonte Elementary School for one track of sixth graders, the teacher said. Teachers were reportedly crying as they packed up their belongings in February and parents have rallied to try to get certain teachers to return in time for their kids' graduation.

"We definitely knew the investigation needed to be done, and the children needed to be protected," the teacher said. "But the way it was carried out, we disagreed with it and the time it is taking."

Deasy, however, said the staff had to be relocated.

"Absolutely it was the right move," Deasy said in an interview today. "You don't put a price on safety. I think I've been very clear about that."

At Thursday's event, the teachers are planning on wearing white to show their support for "returning the innocent Miramonte staff" to their classrooms, the teacher said. The group has been working on statements for the event over the last couple weeks and will decide collectively on which pieces to read to protect individual teachers' anonymity.

The experience has brought the teachers together and, in a way, "activated them," Villeda said.

"Miramonte for a long time was a school we wouldn't consider a hotspot," Villeda said. "They had a union rep, but they weren't hardcore, walk-the-line union members. But what the district has done is it has activated them...They have become such a family. They make all these decisions collectively, vote on stuff, they really take each other into consideration. They decided they would write these statements in groups and vote on them and decide what statements to read."

Teachers have been receiving letters from the district over the last couple weeks informing them that they have been "cleared" in the investigation, Villeda said. And an investigator was on the Augustus F. Hawkins campus today finishing a last batch of interviews, union officials said.

Deasy said the investigation is ongoing, but confirmed that teachers who have been cleared have been notified. "We've been very clear along the way, when teachers are cleared, when they start school next year, they are free to return," Deasy said. 

Miramonte Elementary will close at the end of this school year and reopen slightly smaller as part of a separate district effort to reduce year-round schools in conjunction with its building program.

Deasy said staff members will be able to return to the school of their choice as it typically done in such a scenario. Teachers who are currently at the school will work with the district to determine their new location, he said.

The district has declined to provide details on the staff members' day-to-day activities, or specifics on when they will return to teaching classes. The removal of an entire school staff is unprecedented.

"This assumption, or presumption of guilt, the guilty-by-association, really is very hard and depressing for a lot of them," Villeda said. "The one statement that lingered, and still does is, 'Well how could nobody know?'...Teaching is a very isolated thing, you don't know what's going on next door.

"That was never really explained in the media, so whenever people find out they're from Miramonte, there's always that second question. 'No of course not, we would have reported it.'"

Tami Abdollah can be reached via email and on Twitter (@latams).

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