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Misconduct scandal prompts L.A. schools to send 604 teacher discipline cases to state

By Michael Martinez, CNN
updated 6:19 AM EDT, Fri June 1, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Los Angeles school officials submit 604 teacher discipline cases for state licensing review
  • State teaching licensing authorities say they will investigate 366 of the teachers
  • The action is fallout from a teacher misconduct scandal in the school system
  • "The safety of our students is our No. 1 priority," L.A. school official says

Los Angeles (CNN) -- In the wake of a teacher misconduct scandal, Los Angeles school officials have referred the discipline cases of 604 teachers from the past four years to state authorities to decide whether the teachers' licenses should also be revoked, a school spokesman said Thursday.

Of the 604 cases in which teachers were fired or facing discipline, 60 teachers were accused of sexual misconduct with pupils on or off campus or with minors who weren't students, school officials told CNN.

The California Commission on Teacher Credentialing will investigate 366 of the 604 teacher cases, spokeswoman Anne Padilla said on Thursday. Most of the cases focused on allegations of teacher misconduct that involved student safety.

The referral of the cases to state licensing investigators is the latest turn in the nation's second largest school system. It has been reeling from a scandal at Miramonte Elementary School, where two teachers have been charged with lewd acts on pupils, including one teacher accused of putting children in adult-like bondage situations and placing semen-filled spoons at their mouths.

The lurid allegations prompted an internal review of the system's handling of past teacher misconduct cases, and the district determined that 604 cases needed to be referred to state licensing authorities for review, though "a substantial number" of other misconduct cases had already been reported to the state, school officials told CNN.

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"Protecting California's schoolchildren is always a priority for the commission. The workload has been a challenge, but a necessary one," commission executive director Mary Vixie Sandy said in a statement.

The 604 cases include teachers who were disciplined or were about to face discipline since July 2008, according to Ira Berman, Los Angeles Unified School District director of employee relations, and Vivian Ekchian, the district's chief human resources officer.

The cases also include teachers who were fired by the school board or who left the district after termination proceedings were initiated or while an allegation of misconduct was pending, Berman and Ekchian said.

The system doesn't know whether any of the teachers who were fired or who left the district are still in the classroom in other school districts, according to Berman and Ekchian.

The 604 figure also includes teachers who were suspended for 11 days or more for a variety of reasons not involving sexual misconduct with students, the two officials said.

"The safety of our students is our No. 1 priority," Ekchian said in explaining why the system referred the 604 cases to the state.

The United Teachers Los Angeles, the teachers' union, had no comment Thursday on the school board's action, spokeswoman Marla Eby said.

The system's internal investigation arose after parental outrage at Miramonte, where a teacher resigned from the system last year but was not referred to the state for possible license revocation, school district spokesman Tom Waldman said.

That person is former teacher Mark Berndt, 61, who pleaded not guilty in February to allegations he bound young students, then photographed them with semen-filled spoons held at their mouths and three-inch cockroaches crawling across their faces, among other graphic depictions.

"We had not informed Sacramento to revoke Mr. Berndt's credentials," Waldman said.

Berndt's teaching credentials have been suspended, Padilla said.

Berndt is being held on $23 million bond and faces 23 counts of lewd acts on a child. The 23 victims were between 7 and 10 years old, and all but two of them were girls, the Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office said.

Authorities have said they have discovered roughly 600 images allegedly taken by Berndt in his classroom.

Los Angeles School Superintendent John Deasy has said Berndt was removed from his teaching job in January 2011 after school officials learned of the police investigation.

A teacher for 30 years, Berndt initially challenged the school district's decision to dismiss him. But he eventually dropped his appeal and resigned last spring.

His arrest in January led to a broader fallout over the adequacy of safeguards for the school's students and the prospect of more victims.

Days after Berndt was taken into custody, another Miramonte Elementary teacher -- Martin Springer, 49 -- was arrested and charged with three felony counts of lewd acts with a girl younger than 14. He has pleaded not guilty.

The school board subsequently shut Miramonte for two days, during which the board reconstituted the entire staff in the 1,400-student school. Miramonte is in unincorporated Los Angeles County within the Florence-Firestone area, about six miles south of downtown Los Angeles.

Meanwhile, the California state auditor is going to carry out an emergency $300,000 audit of the Los Angeles Unified School District's actions in managing and documenting child abuse claims, said State Assemblyman Ricardo Lara, D-Bell Gardens, who sponsored the performance audit proposal.

The incident at Miramonte and similar allegations of child sex abuse at other Los Angeles public schools prompted the audit, Lara said.

CNN's Jaqueline Hurtado contributed to this report.

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