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Sex abuse scandal at L.A. school forces parents to have difficult talks with kids

By Michael Martinez, CNN
updated 12:07 AM EST, Thu February 9, 2012
Sergio Blanco, 42, had to ask his son, Andrew, 9, a third-grader, whether he was molested by his teachers.
Sergio Blanco, 42, had to ask his son, Andrew, 9, a third-grader, whether he was molested by his teachers.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • A sexual misconduct scandal forces parents to have difficult talks with kids
  • The scandal is centered at Miramonte Elementary School
  • Working-class Mexican immigrants populate school's neighborhood
  • "It's a conversation that is like a taboo," one parent says

Florence, California (CNN) -- Sergio Blanco faced the most painstaking moment of parenthood the past week when he had to ask two of his young sons whether they were sexually molested at Miramonte Elementary School.

All throughout this working-class neighborhood, hundreds of parents have been holding similar conversations, searching for the right vocabulary for body parts in talking to their kids as young as kindergarten-age.

The moment has marked a collective loss of innocence for the Mexican immigrant enclave, where the chimes of a church bell tower sing on the half-hour and front yards yield a cornucopia of lemon and orange trees.

If it wasn't shocking enough to discover that a former teacher allegedly photographed his pupils in adult-like bondage with a suspected semen-filled spoon next to their mouths, an equally disturbing aftermath now roils the Spanish-mission-style homes and flats. Parents must ask their kids whether they appear in the now 600 photos found by detectives.

The difficulty of such questioning is compounded by how such open talk is taboo in their culture, parents said in Spanish.

"A parent isn't prepared to have such a conversation -- just trying to figure out what kind of words to use," said Blanco, a 42-year-old painter whose front yard has a full view of the turquoise-and-mustard-colored facade and school entrance. Playful murals of kids, jungle beasts, and leaders ranging from Mother Teresa to John F. Kennedy adorn the two-story exterior.

"I told them they could tell me anything," Blanco said in an interview at his house, with his sons playing in the family car. "Don't be afraid. You can confide in me."

Two of his five sons attend Miramonte Elementary, in third and sixth grades.

"This is a very grave problem -- something very serious," Blanco said. "They said they weren't touched at all -- on their buttocks, their penis or testicles."

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His son Andrew, a third-grader, seemed to display a naivete of the matter that would be expected out of any 9-year-old.

"I was like ...," he said, pausing, "kind of uncomfortable -- because you don't know if any of the teachers are coming back.

"It was like somebody was going to send me to somebody's classroom," he said about being asked about inappropriate touching.

Norma Ascencio, who has two daughters enrolled at Miramonte, said parents have agonized over asking their children about their teachers.

"In the Latino culture, it's a conversation that is like a taboo," said Ascencio, whose daughters are enrolled in fourth and fifth grades. "It's a very uncomfortable conversation. But we have to do it.

"The kids were shy," Ascencio said. "One of my girls said, 'I don't want to hear anything about that teacher.' "

"That teacher" is 30-year teaching veteran Mark Berndt, 61, who was arrested last week and is accused of taking the bondage photos of more than two dozen students in his classroom.

On Thursday, Los Angeles County investigators announced they have found 200 more photos allegedly taken by Berndt, who has been charged with 23 felony counts of lewd acts with pupils, according to a sheriff's spokesman.

Authorities have been able to identify pupils in 175 of the 200 photographs and they are trying to identify those in the remaining 25, said Sgt. Dan Scott of Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department.

Authorities declined to provide further details.

Authorities now have a total of 600 photographs allegedly taken by Berndt, and in further example of their perverse nature, some of them also feature a large three-inch cockroach crawling on kids' faces, authorities said.

A year ago, the school board fired Berndt in the wake of an investigation into him that began more than a year ago; Berndt appealed his termination but he dropped the appeal and resigned last spring, Waldman said. Berndt is now being held in lieu of $23 million bond, authorities said.

In their expanding investigation into alleged teacher sexual misconduct at Miramonte, authorities this week also charged a second teacher, Martin Bernard Springer, 49, of Alhambra, California, whom the school board fired Tuesday.

Springer pleaded not guilty Tuesday to three felony charges of lewd acts with a female pupil under the age of 14.

As the controversy unfolded, the Los Angeles Unified School District has decided to restaff the entire school. The school board closed the 70-teacher school to kids and their parents Tuesday and Wednesday so that the system could conduct the wholesale restaffing.

That decision has upset many parents, who are angry that the school's good teachers are being punished -- by being transferred to another school -- because of crimes allegedly committed by a couple of other teachers.

On Wednesday, the new school staff was being trained in the Miramonte auditorium, said one of the teachers, special education assistant Contisia Davis.

The 1,400-student school is scheduled to reopen with entirely new staff on Thursday.

In an interview on the school campus during a break in the training, Davis described the auditorium mood as "optimistic," though new teachers are facing a daunting task of taking over a school mid-year, with state assessment exams coming up in two weeks.

"It looks good in there because everyone is doing their job and doing the best they can," Davis said. A 16-year teaching veteran, Davis said she was specially selected to work at Miramonte; she was assigned to the school system's Manual Arts High School until she was told of her Miramonte assignment Tuesday.

As an indicator of how the school sits in a low-income area, all of Miramonte's 1,400 students receive a free or reduced-price meal under the federal school lunch program. The student enrollment is 98% Hispanic and 2% African-American; 56% of the students are learning English, according to the school system.

Davis, 36, said she and the new faculty were being trained on how to include social skills in their lesson plans -- so that kids can adjust to the sudden change of having all new teachers.

"The teachers are concerned on how the children are going to feel," Davis said.

Despite the optimism, there were anxieties, Davis said.

"It's a rat race: everyone is trying to figure out who's who. This is all our first day here," Davis added.

Gloria Silva, who has a daughter enrolled in fifth grade at Miramonte and whose four other children graduated from the school, said she was worried that Miramonte's state test scores would suffer when the exams are administered later this month.

Miramonte is a kindergarten-through-sixth-grade school located in unincorporated Los Angeles County within the Florence-Firestone area, about 6 miles south of downtown Los Angeles.

The school struggles academically, according to its website: "The 2011 Adequate Yearly Progress report indicates that in the areas of language arts and mathematics our students did not meet the proficiency target rate of 67.6% in (English/language arts) and 68.5% in math. All of our subgroups did not meet AYP targets."

Those results worry Silva.

"The test scores are going to get worse -- to fall even lower," Silva said, joined by several other mothers standing by the flag pole in front of the school entrance. She and the half-dozen other mothers denounced the complete reconstitution of the school staff, from cafeteria to classroom to principal's office, she said.

"The school is already below standards," Silva added.

Another mother agreed.

"There are good teachers here, too," said Maria Flores, who has two children at Miramonte. She will miss the principal, she said.

"The principal is always telling the students, 'Go for it! Study hard! I come from Mexico too,'" Flores said. "He was a motivator."

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