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Miramonte School sex abuse scandal: Was replacing entire staff too extreme?

When students at the Miramonte Elementary School in South Los Angeles return to school Thursday after a two-day break, they will be reentering a scandal-rocked institution whose entire staff has been replaced.

For children, the notion of going “back to school” after a short hiatus ideally includes the sense of a return to a familiar environment.

But when students at the Miramonte Elementary School in South Los Angeles return to school Thursday after a two-day break, they will be reentering a scandal-rocked institution whose entire staff — from school head down to janitors — has been replaced.

Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) administrators ordered the dramatic move at one of the largest elementary schools in the district — it has more than 1,000 students — in response to an investigation that followed the arrests of two teachers accused of lewd acts against multiple children.

Outraged over the alleged sexual abuse, parents have demanded justice and accountability, and at least three lawsuits reportedly have been filed against the LAUSD, the second largest school district in the nation.

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But anger is also brewing against the district’s remedy, with some education experts and parents saying that jettisoning everyone is too extreme.

Some 45 newly rehired teachers, drawn from a pool of recently laid-off LAUSD educators, face the unprecedented task of taking over the remainder of the school year with just two days of preparation. The school’s outgoing staff, who spent Tuesday and Wednesday briefing their replacements on lesson plans and packing their belongings, are being relocated to a school under construction where they will be interviewed and evaluated.

“It’s an over-reaction,” says Jack Jennings, founder and former CEO of the Center for Education Policy in Washington, of the top-to-bottom house-clearing. “It paints everyone with the same brush,” he says, adding that “there should be a more sophisticated response in which the people responsible should be held accountable and those who aren’t should not be implicated or labeled by association as wrongdoers.”

Situations involving children and sexual abuse are highly emotional, he notes, “so you can understand being swept away.” But, he points out that educators have a responsibility to display a calm, rational response.

“You are dealing with young kids, and obviously there appear to be people who were guilty, but you hope you could have meetings where emotions get spent out and everyone rationally tries to decide on the best course of action rather than simply throw everyone out.”

LAUSD Superintendent John Deasy spent Monday meeting with teachers, parents, and then the press, where he explained that the investigation of such allegations would be disruptive and the staff would need support. He cautioned against stigmatizing the entire staff.

“I am outraged, disgusted,” Mr. Deasy said, according to the local ABC affiliate. “I can’t have any more surprises at Miramonte, even though the police will do what they have to do. And if there are no more, thank God. We deal with the horror and the tragedy I have already. And if there are more, then we will have to deal with that.”

Many parents who object to the decision are organizing a petition to fight it. “They don’t want all the teachers to be removed because there are some very good teachers and the students get good grades with those teachers,” parent Armando Medel told KABC.

The strategy sets a bad example, says criminal defense attorney Christopher Leibig, who adds, “This sets a very negative precedent in terms of workplace fairness.” He says that the idea of one or two allegations resulting in an entire community being switched, “lacks balance. I would hope that in the interest of justice this would not stand.”

The need for the LAUSD to restore public confidence is extremely important, says Jolie Logan, CEO of Darkness to Light, a Washington-based nonprofit dedicated to the prevention of child sexual abuse. But, she adds, creating a public forum for addressing the issue of child sexual abuse is also important, as it can help prevent future incidents.

“LAUSD would be wise to follow the lead of other school districts nationwide,” she says via email, pointing to the South Carolina Department of Education, “which has pledged to train 100 percent of its teachers, administrators, staff, and workforce with specialized curriculum aimed at preventing child sexual abuse.”

To date, she notes, more than 50 percent of South Carolina teachers and staff have completed the training.

“LAUSD is yet another sordid example,” she says, following the recent scandals at Penn State and Syracuse, where the details of the allegations got more coverage than the solutions offered to prevent future abuses.

“Prevention education is the only way to bring about systemic change to end such abuse,” she says, adding that training “takes one of society’s most difficult subjects and brings it to a public forum, encouraging public dialogue. The more adults know about prevention, the more we talk openly, the better we are all prepared to protect kids.”