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L.A. Unified battles lawyers over Miramonte disclosures

EducatorsSexual MisconductMark BerndtCrime, Law and JusticeJustice System

The litigation over sexual misconduct at Miramonte Elementary has resulted in a struggle over which documents should be part of the public record. This includes testimony that a former teacher had alerted her principal about sexual misconduct by Mark Berndt, who was subsequently arrested and later convicted of lewd conduct.

The Los Angeles Unified School District has sought broad confidentiality over documents related to the trial, including some depositions from key witnesses and records from the law-enforcement investigation. Attorneys for students are trying to get selected material into the public record.

The jousting is a preliminary battle before a July trial for the first set of student plaintiffs who allege they were harmed by veteran instructor Berndt, who pleaded no contest last November to 23 counts of lewd conduct and received a sentence of 25 years.

Berndt was accused of spoon-feeding his semen to blind-folded students as part of what he allegedly called a tasting game. The evidence included photos of students apparently engaged in these acts. Other photos showed cockroaches placed on students’ faces.

Attorney Luis Carrillo, representing students suing the school system, said the public record should, when appropriate, include revelations about district actions.

One document in question is a deposition from a former L.A. Unified teacher, who is not named in the public filing. This teacher testified that Berndt exposed his penis and genitals to students in 1993.

The teacher, then a recent hire, said she had gone to observe Berndt’s class after he offered to help her learn classroom management skills. As she walked into his room unexpected, she observed him sitting in front of his students and noticed that he wore loose-fitting shorts with no underwear.

From across the room, “I could see everything, so clearly all of them could see it,” the former teacher said of the students who were nearer to Berndt. 

The teacher said she immediately alerted the principal and demanded that something be done. The principal allegedly responded that she could do nothing because Berndt had tenure protections.

At the time, police were never notified by either the teacher or the principal; both are required to report sexual misconduct under state law.

The teacher, now living out of state, called sheriff’s investigators after learning of Berndt’s arrest in 2012.

A district spokesman said the selective disclosure of testimony is inappropriate.

“We find the recent release of this testimony very troubling because the court is currently working on a process to provide all parties the information they need while protecting the privacy and confidentiality of potential victims and witnesses,” said Sean Rossall. The school system “will not litigate these issues in the media -- without regard for the well-being of those it might hurt.”

He added: “We have full trust and faith in a jury’s ability to distinguish fact from fiction.  As we litigate we will continue to fight to protect students and potential victims from further unwarranted intrusions and publicity. It is simply unfair to them, damaging to the legal process and a disservice to the community.”

Rossall said he also was concerned about possible contamination of a jury pool because of selective disclosure of evidence. Members of a jury need to hear all the evidence, starting with a clean slate, he said.

On Thursday, the district is seeking to seal the teacher’s testimony. L.A. Unified has settled claims in 61 cases involving either Berndt or Martin Springer, another former Miramonte teacher. Sexual misconduct charges against Springer were dropped in February.

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