Abusers Target Impoverished Schools Feb 10, 2012
LOS ANGELES – The charges are shocking, but the choice of victims comes as little surprise.
The horrors alleged at Miramonte Elementary School echo previous cases of sexual abuse: vulnerable children, plied with attention and gifts and groomed to trust adult predators.
The abuses claimed here may be different – children blindfolded, gagged and fed a substance investigators say was semen. But the setting follows a pattern alleged at Penn State University, where former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky is accused of using a charity he founded to target vulnerable boys from single-parent homes or troubled families, people unlikely to speak out.
At Miramonte, the victims could hardly have been more disadvantaged: The 1,400 students are virtually all from poor Latino homes….
A former teacher’s aide, Ricardo Guevara, is serving a 15-year sentence in state prison after being convicted in 2004 of sexually abusing three kindergarten girls at Miramonte. The Los Angeles school system was ordered to pay $1.6 million to his three victims’ families.
Beverly Hills lawyer Keith Davidson….now represents four children, three boys and one girl, ages 9 to 13, who were students of accused teacher Mark Berndt, the man at the center of the scandal.
Berndt, 61, who was removed from his third-grade class a year ago, was charged last month with 23 counts of committing lewd acts on children ages 6 to 10 from 2005 through 2010.
Investigators say they have found 600 photographs Berndt took of the children, many performing what he told them was a game….
While investigating claims against Berndt, the Los Angeles sheriff’s department brought charges against another Miramonte teacher. Martin Springer, 49, pleaded not guilty this week to charges he fondled a second-grade girl.
Springer taught at Miramonte for 26 years. Berndt taught there 32 years, a span that saw the neighborhood transform from a heavily African-American population to almost uniformly Latino.
Berndt had been the subject of complaints before. The sheriff’s department investigated a September 1993 incident at the school, but prosecutors decided they didn’t have enough evidence to charge him, said Sandi Gibbons, spokeswoman for District Attorney Steve Cooley….
In a separate incident, school system officials said they fired a female teacher’s aide at the school in 2009, after a mother reported finding love letters the aide wrote to her 11-year-old son….
Ellen Greenwald, a University of Texas-Dallas psychologist, says kids who are victims of sex abuse often fear that going to adults will get them in more trouble and that no one will believe them, or that adults will blame them.
“That’s what really creates the silence that continues,” she says.
Lisa Aronson Fontes, a psychology professor at the University of Massachusetts who wrote Child Abuse and Culture: Working with Diverse Families, says, “There’s a culture of silence at most schools … and a culture of disbelief and denial.”