L.A. school in sex abuse scandal reopens

Ruby Garduno, 9, right, holds a sign as students enter Miramonte Elementary School in Los Angeles, Thursday, Feb. 9, 2012. Children are returning to a Los Angeles-area elementary school where the entire staff has been replaced following the arrests of two former teachers on charges of committing lewd acts with students in class.
AP Photo/Jae C. Hong

Updated Feb. 10, 2012, 12:10 AM ET

LOS ANGELES - Children returned Thursday to an elementary school where the entire staff was replaced after the arrests of two former teachers on charges of committing lewd acts with students in class.

Hundreds of students streamed through the front doors under the eyes of school police and some 100 protesters, who opposed the disruption of removing everyone from the principal to the custodian for the rest of the school year.

The protesters, who included parents and students at Miramonte Elementary School, held signs bashing the Los Angeles Unified School District, proclaiming "Give us our teachers back," and "LAUSD Shame on You."

"It's kind of hard," said Lorena Sorian, whose sixth-grader attends Miramonte. "You barely know your teacher, and they're gone. The kids don't know what's going on."

Sorian said the arrest of the two teachers made her think twice about enrolling her younger children at Miramonte next fall.

A new school currently is under construction nearby.

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The case of a third-grade teacher accused of feeding children his semen during bizarre tasting games in his classroom over a five-year period has sparked outrage and roiled the nation's second-largest school district.

School district officials closed the school on Tuesday and Wednesday to completely replace the 120-member staff.

Superintendent John Deasy said the move was necessary to restore trust among parents in the largely poor, Latino neighborhood of unincorporated Los Angeles County.

Deasy has said he will decide whether any of the previous staff will return to Miramonte after the district completes its investigation.

United Teachers Los Angeles President Warren Fletcher said teachers were being "tarred and stigmatized for no reason" and that grievances would be filed against Los Angeles Unified School District on behalf of some 85 reassigned teachers.

"It is crystal clear that LAUSD doesn't have a plan," Fletcher said. "They're making this up as they go along, and students at the school are paying the price."

Spokeswoman Monica Carazo said the district would not immediately respond to Fletcher's claim or comment on whether such notices had been sent out.

The new staff includes a retired principal, 88 teachers and dozens of support staff who were recently laid off and were on a rehiring list.

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The new hires alone will cost the cash-strapped district $5.7 million, district spokesman Thomas Waldman told the Los Angeles Times. There will be a counselor in each classroom for the rest of the school year.

In addition, the teachers and staff who were removed will be paid. They eventually will be kept at an unfinished high school nearby, and some teachers will help plan future curriculum for Miramonte, Deasy told radio station KNX.

Although the teachers will be new, Miramonte students will find little else changed, Deasy said.

"They are coming right back to their desks, their work is already on the wall," he said. "What we are doing today is providing students with an opportunity to talk about what has happened."

In addition to those costs, the district faces potentially millions of dollars in legal costs as lawsuits are filed. Families of at least two dozen Miramonte students have retained lawyers so far, the Times said.

The school's reopening follows revelations Wednesday that 200 more inappropriate photos of children were discovered, and that one teacher sent warmly written birthday cards and presents to students who participated in his games.

Teacher Mark Berndt sent birthday cards to some of the girls, asking how they were adjusting to the fourth grade, according to three lawsuits filed against the district.

He also is accused of writing warm notes such as "surely no teacher could ever have a more wonderful student than you!!" and "P.P.S. The Roaches Say `Hi!"'

The notes were signed "Mr. B."

Students at the school say a large cockroach and other insects were kept in terrariums in Berndt's classroom, and authorities allege he photographed some students with the bug placed on their faces.

The cards were provided as exhibits in the lawsuits, which were filed Tuesday on behalf of three former students of Berndt. The suits allege the district and Principal Martin Sandoval failed to adequately safeguard the students against Berndt and a second teacher arrested, Martin Springer, who faces three lewdness charges in connection with the fondling of a second-grader.

Berndt is accused of gibing one girl a CD dated Feb. 12, 2010, with the message, "Happy 9th B-Day -- Hope You Enjoy the Songs!" and such songs as "Never on Sunday" and "Gonna Get Along Without You.",

Sheriff's investigators said they have found 200 additional photos they believe were taken by Berndt who is accused of committing lewd acts on 23 children from 2005 to 2010.

The photos were found late last week at the same pharmacy where a photo lab technician had first noticed odd pictures that led to Berndt's arrest, sheriff's Lt. Carlos Marquez said. The recent discovery brings the total number of photos to roughly 600.

Many of the photos involve children already identified by authorities, but there may be other victims, Marquez said.

Like the other pictures, the photos show children ages 6 to 10 blindfolded and being fed a milky, white liquid that authorities believe was semen on spoons or cookies, Marquez said.

Berndt, 61, taught for 32 years at the South Los Angeles school. He remains jailed on $23 million bail and could face life in prison if convicted.

Los Angeles County sheriff's officials say Springer is attempting to make bond, but remains jailed.

A sheriff's department statement says information on its website that Springer had posted bail and was released Thursday night "was posted in error." He remains held on $300,000 bail.

The 49-year-old was arrested last week after two girls said he had fondled them in class in 2009. He pleaded not guilty after he was charged with committing three lewd acts on one girl in 2009.

The other girl has since recanted her allegation.

Detectives said there is no evidence that the two men acted in concert.