L.A. Unified urged to remain vigilant after settling sex abuse claims

LAUSD reaches settlement deal with victims in Miramonte Elementary sex abuse case

An attorney representing plaintiffs in the Miramonte Elementary School child abuse scandal thanked the L.A. Unified School District for agreeing to a $139-million settlement Friday but urged school officials to continue to push to safeguard children in the system.

“No more rhetoric,” Brian Claypool said outside the downtown Los Angeles County Courthouse where jury selection in the case began earlier this week. “Today is not the end of the Miramonte child abuse scandal, it is the beginning of change.”

Claypool vowed to ensure that L.A. Unified makes fundamental changes to its policies and approach to sexual abuse after the case of former third-grade teacher Mark Berndt rocked the district.

Growing emotional, Claypool cited as an example one of his clients — a young girl who told her counselor that she didn’t want to live anymore. “She envisioned herself walking to the edge of the pier and jumping off in the ocean,” Claypool said. “That’s an example of the depth of grief that these families have suffered and we wanted the LAUSD to acknowledge that and take responsibility for that and compensate these families.”

John Manly, another attorney who handled the civil cases, said there was "a volcano of evidence" against the district. He said that L.A. Unified settled the case because there was "a legal gun pointed at their head."

Manly also took to task the Board of Education. saying the seven members never held a public meeting on Miramonte; rather, he said they handled the matter entirely in secret.

"If I was a board member of this district, I would hang my head in shame," Manly said.

The pact will settle about 150 legal claims from Miramonte parents and children who chose to push forward with the civil trial. Dozens of claims were settled last year for about $30 million.

“We hope that this will help the community heal and move forward,” L.A. Unified general counsel Dave Holmquist said earlier about the settlement. "We really want the community to feel healed by this."

The Friday announcement covers 81 former Miramonte students who were subjected to Berndt's lewd acts.

The court will independently review each claim and determine the appropriate amount for each of the 81 families involved.

Manly, who represents 38 children and 25 parents who sought damages, said the settlement showed that the district was taking responsibility for its failures.

It “shows a level of culpability and contrition by the district that is appropriate, and the hope for all of us is that it will lead to reforms so this doesn’t happen to another child in Los Angeles.”

L.A. Unified Supt. Ramon Cortines said he believed the district would continue to work with parents and communities to better protect students. The agreement balances the goal of sparing children the trauma of a trial with that of reaching a fair settlement, he said.

“There is nothing more important to us than the safety of the students we serve,” Cortines said. “Our goal from the outset of these appalling revelations has been to spare the Miramonte community the anguish of a protracted trial, while at the same time being mindful of the financial consequences stemming from settlements. Given these circumstances, we believe we struck a balance between those objectives.”

Berndt pleaded no contest to the abuse charges a year ago and was sentenced to 25 years in prison, but the case against L.A. Unified has dragged out.

Dozens of claims were settled last year for about $30 million, but a contingent of parents and students opted to take their grievances to civil court, accusing L.A. Unified of not doing enough to protect students after receiving past complaints about Berndt.

Jury selection in the case began Monday, still L.A. Superior Court Judge John Shepard Wiley continued to push both parties to reach an agreement. The Board of Education met behind closed doors Tuesday evening to discuss settlement terms.

The case triggered a review of employee files going back decades in an effort to rid the district of potential problem employees. L.A. Unified also submitted, or resubmitted, hundreds of reports of alleged misconduct to the state Commission on Teacher Credentialing.

Reports of possible misconduct ballooned. The week before Berndt's arrest there were 19. The following week yielded 77, according to district records.

Then-Supt. John Deasy removed scores of teachers from their classrooms. A zero-tolerance policy for employee misconduct was enforced.

The teachers union charged that the district was overreacting, holding teachers allegedly involved in misconduct in what they called "teacher jails" for far too long without giving them information on their cases and unjustly firing other instructors.

L.A. Unified also temporarily replaced the entire staff at Miramonte in the second half of the school year, and required all employees to take a course on the reporting of abuse.

In January, the district assembled a team of experienced law enforcement investigators to take over probes into sexual abuse. The team has since investigated dozens of new allegations and has operated at a quicker pace than when investigations were left to principals, according to figures provided by the district.

In direct response to the Miramonte case, Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill earlier this year aimed at speeding the dismissal of public school teachers for gross misconduct.

At the center of the scandal was a teacher who was once invited to students' birthday parties and quinceañeras. Fond of Hawaiian shirts and class field trips, Berndt was known to hand out lollipops and silly nicknames. He joined children for dodgeball games, sent them holiday cards and managed to turn seemingly mundane topics into interesting lessons.

But in the fall of 2010, a drugstore photo technician processed a photo that showed a child blindfolded and gagged with clear tape. Other photos showed a spoon filled with a milky liquid, which was also seen in and around children's mouths. Los Angeles County sheriff's investigators began quietly looking into Berndt.

A detective found a spoon in Berndt's classroom trash can that looked like the one in the photos. It tested positive for traces of semen that matched Berndt's DNA.

Authorities later found that Berndt had been the target of a 1994 police investigation in which a girl accused the teacher of reaching toward her genitals while she was taking a test. Prosecutors had determined there was insufficient evidence to file charges.

Two women who said they had been Berndt's former students in the 1990s came forward after his arrest and said they saw the teacher masturbating behind his desk. They said they informed a school counselor who advised them to stop making up stories. Other former students recalled to the Los Angeles Times that the teacher had a habit of putting his hand inside the waistband of his pants and that he often perched himself on the steps near the playground, his legs splayed wide.

Court documents released last month revealed that a parent had complained about Berndt as far back as 1983. The parent told the principal at the time that Berndt had dropped his pants during a student field trip to a museum. The principal made notes about the incident in a memo, but Berndt remained on staff.

"Thanks again for the support you gave me," Berndt wrote in a note to the principal. "I did learn at least one thing for sure! Not to take students to the museum while wearing baggy shorts!"

A 512-page report based on a two-year inquiry by the sheriff's department was also filled with allegations that Berndt touched children in a sexual manner and urged them to reciprocate. "There is a suggestion in the police report that Berndt watched videos of bondage of women, and that his taping of children was for Berndt some version of sexualized bondage," Judge Shepard Wiley wrote about the report.

In 2008, the district destroyed about 2,000 reports containing abuse allegations because officials determined that state law banned them from possessing the forms because of privacy rules, according to an L.A. Unified spokesman.

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Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times

UPDATE

2 p.m.: This post has been updated with additional comments from plaintiffs' attorneys Brian Claypool and John Manley.

11:42 a.m.: This post has been updated with additional details.

This post was originally published at 10:57 a.m. PST.

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