Here in Los Angeles, the news has filled with a parents’ nightmare: a long-time elementary school teacher was arrested in January for sexual abuse of students he taught. The lewd, bizarre behavior happened in his classroom, and continued for over a decade.
The case is saddening and sickening, and the details of what happened at Miramonte Elementary School are chronicled at the LA Times and other news outlets. But one aspect of how the case was handled by administrators has stirred up controversy in LA, and we wanted to ask you what you thought about it.
See, after the arrest of teacher Mark Berndt, the community was in an uproar, as you can imagine. Parents pulled their children from school. Rumors flew. No one could believe that the abuse had been allowed to go on for years, and right in the school building. Trust had been broken. After a few days of protests and intense media scrutiny, administrators closed the school for two days, removed all the teachers and staff in the school, and replaced them.
Can you imagine your school closing today and reopening two days later with an entirely new faculty and staff? The results were chaotic, to say the least. But administrators said the change was necessary in order to get to the bottom of the abuse scandal.
LA Unified School District Superintendent John Deasy said, “Our first responsibility is to protect the children in our care. It is important that our communities continue to feel safe in our schools…After all investigations are complete and no additional issues emerge, every staff member from Miramonte who is now [assigned to a different school] will have the opportunity to return.” He was also quoted as saying that it was essential to investigate an apparent “culture of silence” at the school, “where someone could have known something and then chose not to act.”
Deasy seems to be saying that all that all the 88 teachers and 40 staff members (including the principal and administrative staff) at Miramonte are under suspicion to some degree because the abuse happened in their midst.
This response is interesting because it gets to the heart of what we teach kids about the essential role of the bystander in bullying. In our anti-bullying workshops, we teach that there are always bystanders who know something about what is going on, and that bullying is possible only when bystanders allow it to continue to happen.
Though they are of course fundamentally different in many ways, child abuse by adults has certain factors in common with bullying (i.e. child abuse their peers). Both are difficult to sustain for long periods of time without someone else having some idea of what is going on. And in both cases, it can be hard for bystanders to speak up about their knowledge or their suspicions, because of the enormous stigma of doing so, especially within a group that they’re part of.
Ultimately, the bystander responsible for bringing Mark Berndt to the attention of authorities was not one of his colleagues, but a worker at the photo developing lab where he had dropped off photos of his students, blindfolded in his classroom, to be developed. Although nothing in the photos was explicitly pornographic, the pictures raised enough red flags in the mind of the photo technician that he shared his concerns with police.
Until the investigation is finished, we’ll have no way of knowing whether any of the other teachers at Miramonte Elementary School had reason to suspect Mark Berndt and stayed silent. Or, whether suspicions were brought forth and never pursued by the principal and staff. But by replacing all adults at the school, Superintendent Deasy made a bold statement about the important role of bystanders and the responsibility of adults to do everything possible to stop and prevent abuse.
But it could also be said that Mr. Deasy went too far. The children of Miramonte have been on an emotional roller coaster. Was it supportive of them to force them back to school without their familiar and trusted teachers?
Parents seemed divided by this question. For several days after the faculty change, some parents protested outside the school, saying that their children needed stability and familiar, trusted people most of all, in this traumatic time. For others, though, the overhaul was just the type of bold gesture they wanted to see from administrators. Gradually, attendance picked up, and has resumed normal levels as parents allowed their children to return to school.
The removed teachers have not lost their salary or benefits, and they have to report to work every day at a different, empty building. Miramonte is now staffed by teachers who were laid off last year all around the district due to budget cuts.
So, what do you think? Was removing all of Miramonte’s staff appropriate, or overkill? How would you respond if administrators took such a step at your school? How would students and parents react? What can you do to fight a “culture of silence”? Please share your thoughts in the comments.