By Frank Wells
Parents and students support teachers during the media circus at Miramonte Elementary School.
On Jan. 31, educators and parents of Miramonte Elementary School in Los Angeles were stunned by the revelation that a former staff member, a classroom teacher, had been arrested and charged with committing 23 lewd acts against children, allegedly in his own classroom. Just a few days later, as the bizarre nature of the allegations in the case propelled Miramonte into an unwanted national spotlight, the school was rocked by the arrest of a second teacher on charges of unlawful contact with two students (one charge has subsequently been dropped).
As Los Angeles Unified School District stood in the glare of the national media and questions began to arise about how the district had handled this and other cases, LAUSD Superintendent John Deasy took the extreme step of removing and replacing the entire staff of the school. Met with fierce opposition from parents, many of whom threatened to keep their children home until their teachers returned, and from United Teachers Los Angeles, which held a news conference in front of the school saying the district had gone back on its word to return staff to the site, the district issued a statement later that day reassuring teachers and parents that the staff would be returned once the district completed an investigation into what happened and how. Betty Fuentes, 18, whose brother attends the school, lamented the disruption caused by the sudden transfers, adding that with parent conferences and standardized testing coming up, “the timing couldn’t have been worse.” UTLA , meanwhile, called for a “thorough, fair, and
vigorous” investigation of all allegations and committed to help rebuild the Miramonte community.
During news interviews, UTLA President Warren Fletcher reminded the public that no one is more concerned with student safety than teachers and suggested that at Miramonte the district was dealing with an awful situation by “using a hatchet when a scalpel would be more appropriate.” Fletcher’s point was a necessary reminder that educators are as horrified as anyone when something like this happens. But that point was lost on some talk radio hosts who jumped on the tragedy to bash all teachers and unions, and even furthered their attacks on public employee pensions. The media circus continued to grow as some of the children involved went on “Dr. Phil” to give their versions of events.
At press time, the Miramonte investigation continues, and there have been additional news reports alleging district mishandling of cases at other sites. In response to the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing’s criticism of the district’s failure to report an earlier incident in a timely manner, Superintendent Deasy has called for changes to teacher dismissal laws and has vowed to report all allegations of teacher misconduct to the CTC (neither of which would have done much to prevent the alleged crimes at Miramonte). Educators agree that protecting the safety of students must be the top priority, but it must be done in an atmosphere that doesn’t encourage a witch hunt or that tarnishes an entire school or profession based on the alleged criminal actions of one person. And the sooner that Miramonte students get their teachers and a sense of normalcy back, the sooner they’ll be able to put this tragedy behind them.