By Rob Kuznia and Abby Franklin
The man who served as principal at Miramonte Elementary School during its infamous abuse scandal in 2012 has been reassigned to the same position at President Avenue Elementary School in Harbor City.
The announcement that Martin Sandoval will be the principal at President Avenue in the fall came as a surprise to parents, who complain they were not adequately notified. The parents say they learned there was a new principal when they received an automated phone call placed to them on Tuesday night. It mentioned two parent meetings to introduce a new principal – both scheduled for Thursday evening.
“Some parents aren’t putting two and two together,” said one parent in an anonymous call to the Daily Breeze. “I wouldn’t have realized it was the same guy if another parent hadn’t been handing out fliers before the meeting saying so.”
Sandoval, who will take the reins at President Avenue from the retiring Milica Mladinich, had been the principal of Miramonte Elementary in South Los Angeles for three years when Mark Berndt, a longtime teacher at the school, was arrested in his Torrance apartment on suspicion of abusing 23 students over a five-year period. Among the allegations: he fed third-graders spoonfuls of semen and took photos of students blindfolded, with huge cockroaches crawling on their faces.
The Berndt case has yet to go to trial. The teacher remains jailed on $23 million bail and has pleaded not guilty. His next court date is set for July 15.
John Deasy, superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District, vouched for the professionalism of Sandoval, who during this past school year has worked not as a principal but as director in the North East Service Center.
“At Miramonte, Mr. Sandoval acted quickly when he had information about alleged misconduct to protect the children,” Deasy said in a statement Friday. “These incidents impacted everyone at Miramonte, but we are glad that Mr. Sandoval is healing with the community and returning to a school site – the place where he belongs. He will be an effective leader for the school.”
Attorneys representing the students in a civil lawsuit against the district disagree that Sandoval acted quickly. In fact, Sandoval is named as a defendant in the case.
“It’s very disappointing that everybody from the superintendent to the principals … all fell asleep,” said Luis Carrillo, one of the attorneys. “They did not protect the children.”
Among the plaintiffs’ allegations against Sandoval is one stating that he, in or around 2009, walked into Berndt’s classroom, where he witnessed the teacher videotaping students “with the camera aimed at the children’s groins.” It goes on to say that Sandoval responded by saying, “We can’t be doing this or it could get us into trouble.”
Sandoval couldn’t be reached for comment Friday. But he has been credited for bringing some positive change to Miramonte before the scandal left it in smoldering pieces.
A Spanish speaker, he reached out to parents and saw to it that the students were properly tutored in English and math, according to an article in the Los Angeles Times. He started a parent council and a school dance, and even arranged a surprise visit from a member of the Black Eyed Peas.
At the parent meeting at President Avenue School in Harbor City, Sandoval said he intended to start a PTA, which currently doesn’t exist at the school, a parent said.
The Miramonte story not only went national for its vile details, but also led to a cascade of similar allegations about other teachers within the school and elsewhere in LAUSD. It triggered a massive investigation that required putting all of the school’s 100-plus teachers on leave and replacing them with substitutes and other replacements – a transaction that cost $5 million.
Many of the teachers were allowed to return after they were cleared of wrongdoing in the investigation. Sandoval was briefly reassigned to Sierra Park Elementary in El Sereno. But he left that post several days later, in August, potentially to take the director job. (District officials declined to comment further on his employment history.)
The reassignment to Sierra Park Elementary caused at least one parent there to express alarm on Facebook.
“We had the pleasure of welcoming a new principal interestingly enough it was the same principal from Miramonte elementary school … Martin Sandoval,” the parent wrote, according to a blog called LA School Report. “tHANK gOD (sic) he was removed after four days and the LAUSD barely made it public today after the fact.”
But Judith Perez, president of the Associated Administrators of Los Angeles, said Sandoval is not only highly capable but also blameless when it comes to the Miramonte debacle. She worries that his reputation will be unfairly tarnished.
“The district did an internal investigation. We understand that he is entirely blameless from the district’s point of view,” she said. “People are accused of things all the time. There are all kinds of lawsuits. That does not imply any guilt whatsoever.”