The Miramonte sex abuse scandal has horrified and angered many famiies, not just because of the alleged actions of the teachers, but because of how parents found out about it. Patrick Healy takes a look at LAUSD's policy regarding when and how they notify parents.
The uproar in Pacoima emphasized for Nury Martinez the need for the Los Angeles School Board to spell out a formal policy for notifying parents of criminal matters involving allegations of crimes against students.
"People were angry, and rightfully so," said Martinez, a board member who represents the northeast San Fernando Valley area that includes Telfair Elementary School.
Parents at Telfair were outraged that they had to find out from a newspaper article that a former teacher, Paul Chapel, faced felony charges of lewd conduct.
When he was removed from his classroom last April, parents were not told why. Nor were they told when he was arrested in October.
On Feb. 9, the Los Angeles District Attorney finished a criminal complaint. Like parents, board members were also not notified, according to Martinez, who said she found out only after a news reporter called.
"I don't like what they're doing that they hide stuff from you when they shouldn't," one Telfair parent said.
"It's a problem," Martinez said. "It just looks like we're covering things up."
Martinez noted a lack of consistency in the district's response to the recent series of cases that first commanded public attention last month with the arrest of Mark Berndt, a former teacher accused of 23 counts of lewd conduct against students as young as age 7.
Berndt had been removed from his classroom at Miramonte Elementary a year ago and agreed to resign last June, but parents were not told until an investigation by the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department led to the filing of criminal charges and Berndt's arrest.
Less than a week later, disclosure came more quickly.
Parents were notified of suspicions against a second Miramonte teacher, Martin Springer, on the day he was arrested – the day after Springer had been removed from his classroom, and before the District Attorney made a filing decision.
Martinez and other board members believe LAUSD should spell out procedures for notifying parents, and set guidelines for when that should happen.
Complicating matters are law enforcement concerns that public disclosure can interfere with an investigation still in progress. In the cases of both Berndt and Chapel, investigators requested the school district make no statements or inquiries, according to John Deasy, District Superintendent.
"We weren't even to talk to any teacher about it, or any student," Deasy said on the NBC4News program News Conference.
LAUSD does not investigate criminal allegations. Rather, the district relies on the law enforcement agency which has jurisdiction over the area where the crime allegedly occurred.
When law enforcement notifies the district of an investigation of an employee suspected of a crime against a child, Deasy's first priority is to remove the suspect from the classroom, he said.
Deasy said it is incumbent on the district to cooperate with law enforcement requests and not do anything that investigators fear would hinder the investigation.
Still, a consensus is emerging in district headquarters that there should be a limit on how long an investigation is kept from parents.
One proposal calls for parent notification no later than 72 hours after the arrest of a district employee on suspicion of a crime against a child. Some think it should be sooner.
And sometimes it is.
The principal at Sunland's Mt. Gleason Middle School sent students home with a note Friday explaining that, just hours earlier, a teacher had been removed from his classroom on suspicion of misconduct.
That teacher was not immediately arrested and, as of now, faces no criminal charges.
The demand to notify parents of alleged misconduct by school employees has gained impetus from the very nature of the case against Berndt.
None of the children identified by sheriff's investigators had come forward with complaints against Berndt, nor had their parents. What authorities have charged as criminal conduct, Berndt told the children were merely games.
The investigation was launched only after a photo processor reported suspicious photos of children and investigators shared their suspicions with the families.
Some of the photos showed children blindfolded, with giant Madagascar cockroaches on their faces. Others showed children eating cookies covered with what investigators believe was Berndt's own bodily fluid.
Since the disclosure, other families have contacted law enforcement or private attorneys with similar accounts.