School Climate & Safety Opinion

Leading Means Protecting the Children

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — November 23, 2014 4 min read
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The two of us begin our days as many of you do. Both of us have coffee, ritualistically, as a part of our entry to the day. The other part that we have in common is a check of the news. One of us still reads the print news daily and reads the MSN headlines online. The other of us gets all her news online. One of us when driving to work listens to NPR, classical or pop; the other one flips back and forth between NPR and conservative talk radio, and enjoys country music and folk. How do we, three times a week, come to a single voice for the blog? Most usually connecting online, this week we had an occasion to meet over a great cup of coffee and reaffirmed that common ground is what we care most about. We are passionate about the importance of leadership in education and in society. We care deeply about children and we respect educators to our core.

So, you can imagine our outrage Saturday morning as we read about the Los Angeles Unified School District’s $139 million dollar settlement for the 81 students in the Miramonte Elementary School child sex abuse case. The victims were boys and girls, ages 6 to 10.

The settlement is believed to be the largest ever for a school sex abuse case, according to victims’ lawyers, and increases the district’s price for the scandal to $170 million when combined with 65 cases settled earlier for $30 million.

The perpetrator was sentenced in early 2012 to 25 years in prison after entering a no contest plea to the lewd conduct charges against him. The Huffington Post reported the investigation...

...managed to uncover a dozen incidents involving Berndt between 1983 and 2009, even though the school district had purged thousands of child abuse reports and logs that had been maintained for decades.

USA Today reported that a second teacher in the same school located in a primarily poor, Latino community was arrested for child molestation the same month. Eventually, all teachers in the school were reassigned. There are allegations swirling that the school district officials may have known about the inappropriate behaviors for 30 years.

Our outrage does not stem from the amount of the settlement: how can one be compensated for such horrific violations? No. Our outrage comes from the incredible possibility that school officials knew there was a serious problem and no action with consequence was taken. It comes from the fact that there are over 80 known victims and likely dozens of others. It comes from a school attorney who acknowledges that if the allegations had arisen now they would be taken more seriously. This is progress that we struggle to be proud of. Weren’t there child abuse laws back then as well? Is the real difference how much more visible these cases have become as the internet makes the case from Los Angeles a national story? It comes also from the laws which allow this elementary teacher, now criminal, to receive his state pension, in the same way as other meritorious teachers who served the children of California with dignity. The perpetrator was not fired, he retired after his arrest. He was once a “popular teacher” but after seeing photographs of his actions can we describe him as worthy of a lifetime pension? Not us. Where are the voices rising to change this aspect of public employees’ pension systems? Doesn’t it seem that those who are convicted of crimes committed while working, especially against our children, should forfeit the right to lifetime pensions related to those years?

Listen to the Children
If there is a leadership lesson buried in this mess, it is to listen to the children, take them seriously and don’t hope for bad news to go away. It may for a while, but if there is truth in the story it will come back with a vengeance. For the Los Angeles Unified School District, it has. Policies and procedures will change and community vigilance will increase. Money will place salve on the wounds of the children and their families. But, the damage that happened in the lives of those children is a sadness we carry as a society. At our core, we believe they are all our children and they deserve what we want for our own. That any of them have suffered this violation is a shame on us all.

Courage and Hope
We get disheartened by reading this story but the El Paso Times and other news outlets that reported this part of the story led us back to hope. Within in every awful story, we look for heroes or heroines, someone whose connection to conscience is strong enough to drown out any confusion about right action. There was such a person in this story. As is often the case, this perpetrator photographed his victims and his actions. Over years he took those photographs to a local CVS to be developed. There is a law in California that photo processors must report any phots of suspected child abuse. It is here we find our heroine. A 19-year-old woman had only been on the job as a photo processor for a month when she discovered the troubling photos of blindfolded children being fed a white substance. Upon raising questions, she learned Berndt had been processing similar pictures there since 2005. John Manly, one of the attorneys who filed the lawsuit, said,

“She was told not to call the police by her supervisors and she did it anyway...If she hadn’t made that call, we wouldn’t be here today and he’d still be teaching.”

So, courage presents itself in the form of a 19 year old who listened more to an internal compass than an external direction. This is the stuff of heroes and of heroines. We do not know her name but we call it out anyway. She is one who came through an educational system and didn’t get her voice stifled. Somewhere she learned that right action must be taken to protect children. In her youthful pursuit of justice, she made a difference to so many. We are proud of her and grateful to her. In this story, she stands out.

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