Report: L.A. teacher aide sent boy love letters

Parents bring their children to school as others protest outside Miramonte Elementary school in Los Angeles on Feb. 6, 2012. About three dozen parents and supporters staged a protest at the Los Angeles-area school rocked by allegations of lewd conduct crimes by two teachers against children. They demanded greater communication with education officials and the placement of cameras in classrooms and hallways at Miramonte Elementary School. AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes

LOS ANGELES - Officials at an elementary school rocked by teacher sex abuse claims are investigating yet another allegation of misconduct, this one involving a teacher's aide accused of sending love letters to an 11-year-old boy.

The mother of the fourth-grader told the Los Angeles Times that the aide, a woman who appeared to be in her 50s, sent at least three letters to her son in 2009, including one that read: "when you get close to me, even if you give me the chills I like that. Don't tell nobody about this!"

The allegations come as school district administrators move to replace the entire staff at Miramonte Elementary School as the Los Angeles Unified School District investigates two veteran teachers arrested last week.

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Mark Berndt, 61, is charged with committing lewd acts on children, ages 6 to 10, between 2005 and 2010. The alleged acts include blindfolding children, feeding them semen, taping their mouths, and photographing them in a "game."

The furor led to two parents coming forward Thursday to complain that teacher Martin Springer, 49 who had worked at the school for 26 years, fondled two second-grade girls in his classroom.

Springer pleaded not guilty Tuesday after he was charged with committing lewd acts upon one girl in 2009. Bail was set at $300,000.

Police have set forth no connection between the cases, but parents' confidence has been badly shaken.

In the latest allegations to come to light, the teacher's aide wrote a letter signing herself "sad girl" because she was being transferred to another school, the mother alleged.

The mother went to the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, which directed her to the school. During a meeting that included the mother, her son, his teacher and an assistant principal, the teacher's aide acknowledged writing letters and said she had a grandmotherly affection for the boy.

The aide no longer works for the school system, district spokeswoman Gayle Pollard-Terry said.

The move to replace the entire has been met with mixed feelings.

Some parents applauded the decision, but others protested the move and circulated a petition calling for the staff at the school to be reinstated.

All 120 staff members at Miramonte will be replaced as of Thursday after a two-day school shutdown as part of Los Angeles Unified School District's investigation into the two veteran teachers arrested last week.

"It's the most severe action I've seen taken by a school district," said Terri Miller, president of Stop Educator Sexual Abuse, Misconduct and Exploitation, an advocacy organization based in Las Vegas.

The decision Monday came after about three dozen people protested in front of the main doors of the school earlier in the day, some carrying a banner that read, "We the parents demand our children be protected from lewd teacher acts." It also followed a march later in the day, in which 100 angry parents marched from the elementary school to the nearby administrators meeting.

Mother Maria Jimenez said some parents would at least like to have been notified that this was being considered as many feel it's drastic. "They did this without advising us or consulting us," she said.

Parents on Monday night handed Superintendent John Deasy a petition with 400 signatures calling for open doors and allowing parents to observe classrooms and act as hall monitors.

But they did not want good teachers removed, said Martha Escutia, a lawyer and former state senator who is helping parents to organize a group named Mothers of Miramonte.

"This is not being very well received," Escutia said. "Some kids have established close relationships with their teachers."

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said he supported Deasy's decision to replace the staff.

"I think we need to do everything we can to make sure these kids, these students and their families, get the help that they need and to get to the bottom of how this happened," he said.

The school board on Tuesday voted unanimously to fire Springer. He has 30 days to file an appeal.

Berndt was fired in January 2011 after the district learned of a sheriff's department probe. He appealed and resigned six months later.

Miramonte's old staff will continue being paid and will be housed at an undisclosed location at least until August while each person is thoroughly interviewed, Deasy said.

Replacing teaching staffs at schools has been done in LAUSD and other schools, but in cases of chronically low academic performance. Teachers usually must reapply for their jobs, and the turnover does not also extend to support staff.

It's unclear whether any staffers will return to Miramonte. On Tuesday, they were packing up their classroom belongings to head to a nearby newly constructed school that is unoccupied, district spokesman Tom Waldman said.

The new principal will be a retired principal, while the rest of the new staffers, including some 90 teachers, are former district personnel who were laid off due to budget cuts in recent years, the district said.

Deasy said the new staff members are being vigorously screened for any previous complaints against them. Each of the approximately 90 teachers will be accompanied in class by a psychiatric social worker to address possible issues caused by the scandal and the midyear disruption.

The cost of the plan has not yet been determined, but Deasy said he was sparing no expense to understand how the abuse occurred over some years and no one reported it.

The district's investigation, which will be handled by an independent commission led by retired California Supreme Court Chief Justice Carlos Moreno, will include interviewing past students and staff at Miramonte.

School sex abuse expert Mary Jo McGrath, an attorney who has conducted some 350 abuse investigations, said the investigation could uncover more cases.

"It's not a witch hunt, it's just that someone is really looking," she said. "Cases start unpeeling like an onion. It's always the same pattern."

Berndt is charged with committing lewd acts on children, ages 6 to 10, between 2005 and 2010. The alleged acts include blindfolding children, feeding them semen, taping their mouths, and photographing them in a "game."

Berndt, who worked at the school for 32 years, remains jailed on $23 million bail and could face life in prison if convicted.

Springer pleaded not guilty Tuesday after he was charged with committing lewd acts upon one girl in 2009. Bail was set at $300,000.

Investigators said they know of no connection between the men. Berndt and Springer took their classes on at least two joint field trips in the past decade, according to the Los Angeles Times.

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