CULTURE OF SILENCE ROCKED AN L.A. SCHOOL. THE SUPERINTENDENT SMASHED IT IN HISTORIC FASHION
April 15, 2014
Summary: Only months after assuming his position as the Superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District, the largest school district in the country, John Deasy had to react to a child sexual abuse scandal at Miramonte Elementary School that indicted two teachers. Instead of relying on a cumbersome process to remove the teachers involved, he removed all 128 teachers, administrators, and support staff to smash a culture of silence in his school district.
In 2012, Miramonte Elementary School in Los Angeles was rocked by the reports that two of their teachers, Mark Berndt and Martin Springer, were accused of heinous sexual crimes against their students. Springer was arrested on suspicion of fondling two girls in his classroom over a three year span shortly after Berndt was charged with committing lewd acts on his children. The charges against Springer were later dropped, but only because one accuser recanted her story and the other too horrified to testify in court; the L.A. County District Attorney has reserved their right to re-file charges. Berndt was charged, found guilty, and is serving 25 years in prison for committing lewd acts on 23 children over a five year span, and by lewd acts, I mean he laced cookies with his semen and fed it to blindfolded students in a grotesque “tasting game.” His other allegations included masturbating behind his desk in the 1990-1991 school year while in the classroom, and attempting to touch a girl’s genitals in 1994; the school turned a blind eye in each of Berndt’s other allegations. In one case, the school counselor told the students to “not make up stories.” His other cases resulted in no immediate action from the school. While no official link between the two teachers has been discovered, they knew each other and took their students on two field trips in the past decade.
Enter John Deasy, the Superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), who assumed his duties just months before news broke of the Miramonte cases. Deasy wasted no time in asserting his leadership, moving swiftly by forcing Berndt to quit before he could harm anymore children, and immediately moved to fire Springer upon initial reporting of his allegations. But Deasy was far from done taking action, however. Three days after the Springer story broke, Deasy did the unthinkable; he fired the ENTIRE staff at Miramonte to smash a culture of silence; all 88 teachers and 40 administrators and support staff (even janitors and custodians), and replaced them with a fully-trained staff, stating that, “we intend to interview…every single solitary adult who works at Miramonte,” Further, he noted that a full investigation with the permanent staff in the classrooms would have been a significant distraction to the learning environment.
Some might consider Deasy’s bold leadership excessive or heavy handed. Not us; we think Deasy’s courage to defend and protect his students is nothing short of admirable. LAUSD receives a significant amount of money, as it is the largest school district in the U.S.; but to Deasy, this wasn’t about the money; “The last thing I’m worried about is a budget issue; the #1 thing I’m worried about is the students.” To Deasy (himself an educator and a father), this was about protecting children, and doing the right thing. Additionally during this process, Deasy expressed impatience with the laws that prevented him from immediately firing Springer. As it stands now, the process to fire a teacher for misconduct can extend beyond 18 months.
California administrators and educators can all learn from John Deasy’s example. His bold reaction to such a horrifying situation was courageous and profound, which was exactly the type response needed. There is no question that John Deasy is a champion for children safety in his schools, our only wish is that more of California’s senior institutional leaders were as engaged and dedicated as Deasy.