L.A. Unified discusses possible settlement in Miramonte case

In the Miramonte scandal over teacher Mark Berndt, L.A. Unified discusses a possible settlement

The Los Angeles Board of Education discussed a possible settlement offer Tuesday involving a former Miramonte Elementary School teacher accused of feeding semen to his students in what became the largest and costliest child abuse case in the school system.

The plaintiffs' attorneys, who represent about 70 students and 40 parents, would not disclose details of the offer they made to the L.A. Unified School District. No action was taken on the proposal in the school board's closed-door meeting, and the plaintiffs await a response.

If the two parties come to an agreement, L.A. Unified would be closer to concluding its role in a lengthy scandal that has led to the replacement of the staff of an elementary school, an overhaul of district policies and new legislation on teacher misconduct.

The district already settled dozens of similar claims for about $30 million in a deal made last year, but a contingent of parents and students opted to push forward with a civil case that accused L.A. Unified of not doing enough to protect students after having received past complaints about inappropriate conduct by their teacher, Mark Berndt.

Jury selection for that case began Monday and will continue unless a resolution is reached.

"We look forward to trying this case to verdict and to a full public airing of facts, circumstances and knowledge of what the district knew about Mark Berndt molesting children for the past 30 years," said attorney John Manly, who declined to comment on the settlement talks.

Sean Rossall, a spokesman for L.A. Unified, also said he would not discuss the specifics of settlement negotiations, out of respect for all parties.

In 2012, Berndt was charged with 23 counts of lewd acts on children.

A once-popular teacher whose career spanned three decades, Berndt was accused of playing what he allegedly called a "tasting game" with children, which authorities said consisted of spoonfuls of semen. Los Angeles County sheriff's investigators began looking into Berndt after a drugstore photo technician discovered images of a child blindfolded and gagged with clear tape. Other photos showed a spoon filled with a milky liquid, with the same substance seen in and around children's mouths.

A detective later 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.

The allegations prompted outrage and disgust from parents in the school's Florence-Firestone neighborhood. L.A. Unified found itself scrambling to address the fury, as well as questions about how Berndt's actions — said to have taken place over five years — went unnoticed.

Authorities discovered that Berndt had been the subject of multiple past complaints. In 1994, a girl accused him of reaching toward her genitals while she took a test. And a decade earlier, a parent informed the school's principal at the time that Berndt had dropped his pants during a student field trip to a museum, according to court documents. The principal made notes about the incident in a memo, but Berndt remained on staff.

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

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 Rossall.

Berndt pleaded no contest to the charges a year ago and was sentenced to 25 years in prison.

stephen.ceasar@latimes.com

corina.knoll@latimes.com

Twitter: @sjceasar @corinaknoll

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