Thursday, March 1, 2012

Teachers: the New Satanic Serial Child Molesters?

Teachers Just Wanna Have Fun (Image from Flickr, by SKPY)
Attacking teachers’ unions, collective bargaining and due process rights, pensions, salaries and privacy has not ended the achievement gap nor mollified the critics of public education. Now the witch hunt for teachers is taking a new and twisted turn for the worse, thanks to several recent and coincidental abuse allegations against Los Angeles Unified School District employees and an orgy of hysterical media reports portraying the problem as rampant and due in part to the teachers union.

While it is, of course, imperative that schools provide safe learning environments and that everyone, including teachers, be held accountable for criminal misconduct, a cluster of child abuse allegations does not an epidemic make. Despite the fact that six L.A. Unified employees have recently booked on suspicion of sex-related crimes, while several others have been removed from duties pending investigations, local law enforcement officials have emphasized that they do not believe there is any increase in abuse or molestation, according to the Los Angeles Times. Rather, there has been improved reporting, as there often is following a high profile case. No one wants to get blamed for permitting abusers to flourish in their schools, so they are on heightened alert, looking more closely at any suspicious behavior, and promptly informing officials. Consequently, numerous teachers are under investigation for hugging “too long,” and similar allegations that may or may not be related to abusive behavior.

Nevertheless, LAUSD officials are now releasing information about allegations and pending investigations even before the investigations have been completed and the teachers have been prosecuted or vindicated, thus increasing the sense that molestation and abuse are rampant. In the past, officials withheld such information until after the investigations had been completed and credible charges could be made against the teacher.

Damage Control Through Teacher Control
LAUSD was justifiably worried about its credibility and potential litigation in the wake of the Miramonte scandal. Yet its response of firing the entire staff at Miramonte amounted to collective punishment for the misdeeds of one or two depraved individuals. Likewise, its new policy of publicly revealing accusations and investigations prior to their completion tramples on teachers’ privacy and due process rights in hopes of winning a cheap PR victory. Neither policy makes children any safer.

Now, Sup. John Deasy wants to abolish a contractual provision in which unproven allegations of misconduct are removed from teachers’ personnel files after four years because it could help the district bust potential bad eggs. The LA Times has contributed to the hysteria by calling it a “union” rule, rather than a collectively agreed upon provision in teachers’ contracts, as if the union itself is responsible for the abuse of children.

Both LAUSD and the LA Times have brought up the case of Miramonte Elementary teacher Mark Berndt, who was recently charged with 23 counts of lewd conduct against students. Berndt’s file contained nothing about past misconduct despite at least four past allegations against him.

If anything, this case tells us that LAUSD and LAPD were asleep at the wheel. If there had been four or more allegations against the man and he really was a molester, then LAUSD and LAPD should have been able to bust him long ago, particularly if they had four years to do so. This is the real scandal—not the union’s desire to protect teachers’ privacy and due process rights by purging meritless accusations from their personnel files.

If allegations do not lead to disciplinary action against a teacher, it is reasonable to assume that the allegations were frivolous, vindictive and/or meritless, which is why the contract requires they be thrown out, or they were poorly investigated, in which case eliminating a due process protection would be useless. Holding onto bogus accusations as if they were evidence of something that likely never happened is a classic tactic used by police states and in witch hunts and should not be accepted in lieu of responsible and thorough police work.

Channeling the Satanic Day-Care Molestation Hysteria of the 80s and 90s.
It may turn out that most or all of those currently under investigation in LAUSD are guilty. If so, it is good that they were caught and removed from classrooms. However, the hysteria and demand for teachers’ blood that has followed is reminiscent of the Satanic Day-Care Molestation Hysteria of the 1980s and 90s, in which a few bogus accusations led to the arrests and harassment of many innocent people and a mass fear that every little old lady running a preschool was really a wolf in disguise.

The most infamous of these cases involved the McMartin Preschool in Manhattan Beach, California, leading to the longest and most expensive criminal trial in U.S. history and perhaps the most frivolous. From the start, observers and police should have been skeptical of the absurd claims of hidden tunnels, ritualistic animal slaughter, Satan worship, coprophagia, bloodletting and orgies.  Furthermore, the credibility of the McMartin’s accuser, Judy Johnson, was suspect as she was a diagnosed schizophrenic and chronic alcoholic.

Rather than doing its job of investigating, questioning and critiquing with a skeptical eye, the media simply aped back the ridiculous allegations with prurient delight, thus pandering to the public’s lusts and fears, exacerbating parents’ anxieties about their children’s safety and creating mistrust of all preschools and day care centers.

The suspicion and mistrust lasted nearly two decades. In 1992, for example, a mother in Martensville, Saskatchewan, alleged that a local babysitting service was sexually abusing her child.  Over twelve people, including five police officers, were ultimately charged with running a Satanic cult called The Brotherhood of The Ram, which supposedly practiced ritualized sexual abuse of children at a "Devil Church.” The son of the day care owner was initially found guilty, but a Royal Canadian Mounted Police task force later determined that the original investigation was motivated by "emotional hysteria.” The defendants later sued for wrongful prosecution and won $100,000 each.

The hysteria did not end there. In 1994 and 1995, Washington state police and social workers launched what was then the most extensive child sex-abuse investigation in U.S. history, with 43 adults ultimately arrested on 29,726 charges of child sex abuse in. The main witness was the 13-year-old foster daughter of one of the investigating police officers, Robert Perez. In the end, the city of Wenatchee and Douglas County, Washington were found negligent in the investigations, with the jury awarding the accused couple $3 million.

There were several other similar high profile cases during the 1980s and 1990s. Wikipedia provides a good summary of these cases and includes numerous credible sources. Will LAUSD’s current abuse scandals lead to a similar national mass hysteria and backlash against teachers and their workplace rights?

Hysteria or Common Sense Defense of Children?
Last week, Sup. Deasy ordered school district officials to go back four years to look for any potential teacher misconduct that should have been reported to the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing. He also asked principals to review all employee files, including expired ones going back decades, to flag potential issues and alert law enforcement authorities of any cases that weren’t but should have been reported. Furthermore, he directed principals to report any allegations they felt had not been addressed appropriately.

While this seems like a common sense protection for children, one might wonder why it hadn’t been done before or isn’t done regularly. On the other hand, one might reasonably ask why any cases need to be reexamined if they were properly handled in the first place.

Yet even these “common sense” procedures are not so cut and dry. The administrators union is resisting, pointing out that the district never had clear procedures for what went into site files and the procedures for reporting suspected child abuse cases has changed over the years. Furthermore, as site administrators change, personal files tend to go with them or get discarded. Since these files are unofficial and “personal,” there is no reason why they should be expected to be saved or passed on to future administrators.

UTLA, for its part, is keeping quiet on the issue, probably out of fear that anything they say will be used to portray them as defenders of abusers. The question is will they resist Deasy’s demand that unproven allegations remain in teachers’ files indefinitely.

1 comment:

  1. I have reposted Michael Dunn's post at:

    We are organizing a national forum, both in real time and virtually, on the privatization of American public education. If you would like to be a part in its organization, get in touch: or 323.938.1258