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LAUSD quietly disbands Miramonte child-abuse investigative panel

EducationMark BerndtJohn DeasyLos Angeles County Sheriff's Department
Los Angeles Unified has paid about $30 million to 63 students and their families to settle civil lawsuits
The case involving teacher Mark Berndt was the largest misconduct episode in L.A. Unified history

The Los Angeles school district has quietly shut down a high-profile special investigative panel intended to review the Miramonte Elementary child-abuse case, citing its cost.

The school system had pledged to form the commission in 2012 as a measure of its commitment to protect students after the arrest of veteran elementary teacher Mark Berndt, who was charged with lewd conduct.

Civil rights attorney Connie Rice, who was asked to lead the commission, said she believes that L.A. Unified feared increasing its liability if the panel found fault with the school system. The district has paid about $30 million to 63 students and their families to settle civil lawsuits, along with millions more in legal fees and other costs. Other litigation is proceeding to trial.

"Their legal counsel didn't want me or the commission anywhere near this," Rice said. "But I don't care about the lawsuits. I care about the kids."

Supt. John Deasy had announced a series of efforts two years ago aimed at rebuilding the confidence of parents and others. These included the investigative commission to be headed by Rice and retired state Supreme Court Justice Carlos R. Moreno. Deasy also ordered the entire Miramonte staff to be replaced and directed administrators to scour old records to turn up potential problem employees. Deasy also formed an internal investigative team and strengthened record keeping.

As recently as November 2013, the district touted the commission. But the panel had been shelved a year earlier, as indicated in an email obtained by The Times.

"As you will recall, in a July 24 e-mail, I confirmed the Superintendent's commitment to fund the work of the commission," said Greg McNair, a senior L.A. Unified attorney, in the Nov. 5, 2012, message. "Since then, however, the financial outlook for the District weakened. The Superintendent now finds himself in the unfortunate position of being unable to finance the commission's work unless either Proposition 30 or Proposition 38 passes."

Prop. 30 passed — raising new tax revenue for schools across the state. But there was no additional communication with Rice.

McNair said Tuesday that the superintendent has made efforts behind the scenes to seek outside funding, but without success. He did not provide evidence of this outreach; nor was there any public acknowledgment.

"We haven't yet found anyone who is willing to fund the commission and it would be awkward to mention the names of the people who said no," McNair said.

The district has undergone one outside review from state auditors that resulted in changes in the way the system handles allegations of misconduct, he said. In addition, the district has provided counseling and other services to Miramonte families at its own expense, he said.

McNair added that he has apologized to Rice for "poor communication."

"We're not concerned about the liability impact," McNair said. "We're interested in the truth, in hearing all of it."

Lawyers representing Miramonte families in civil cases challenged this account.

"Mr. Deasy made a solemn promise to Miramonte parents to get to the bottom of what went wrong with the appointment of this commission," said attorney John Manly.

District officials "were afraid that the final report would lay the blame where it belongs" — with L.A. Unified, said attorney Luis Carrillo.

In the civil cases, the district is liable for harm caused to students if it knew or should have known about possible problems with Berndt.

Rice, who first disclosed the fate of the commission in a report on KPCC-FM (89.3), said she had assembled an "A-team," both for fact-finding and to develop the best protective measures. The group included prosecutors, former FBI agents, experts on pedophiles and former L.A. police Chief Bill Bratton, who currently heads the New York City police force.

The panel would have required financial resources, but would have been worth it, said Rice, who served without compensation.

"This district is not the picture of competence. They really do need an outside evaluation and they really need experts," she said.

The Berndt case was the largest misconduct episode in L.A. Unified history. The teacher pleaded no contest in November 2013 to 23 counts of lewd conduct and received a sentence of 25 years.

Investigators accused Berndt of spoon-feeding his semen to blind-folded students as part of what he is said to have called a tasting game, among other allegations. The evidence included photos of students apparently engaged in those acts.

A two-year Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department investigation, summarized in a court ruling last week, indicated that there could have been more than 100 victims and that the abuse was more extensive, including claims that Berndt touched students' genitalia and exposed himself.

howard.blume@latimes.com

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