L.A. schools Supt. John Deasy said Friday that he was relieved that the criminal case against an ex-Miramonte Elementary teacher accused of lewd acts against students was over and sharply criticized teachers unions for blocking attempts to streamline the dismissal of those suspected of misconduct.
Former teacher Mark Berndt was charged in 2012 with committing lewd acts against nearly two dozen children at Miramonte Elementary School, including feeding them cookies tainted with semen.
Berndt entered a plea of no contest Friday in Los Angeles County Superior Court, withdrawing his not guilty plea in connection with the more than yearlong L.A. County sheriff's investigation into his conduct at the school.
Berndt, 62, agreed to a sentence of 25 years in prison.
Deasy, speaking to reporters at the L.A. Unified School District’s downtown headquarters, said he was thankful the plea agreement spared the children from testifying in court.
“We are relieved that the students and families will be able to put this behind them and continue to move on and heal,” he said. “I’m very sorry we had to go through this.”
Berndt was arrested in January 2012 after a South Bay drugstore photo technician alerted authorities to images of children blindfolded, some with tape over their mouths, on film Berndt had dropped off for processing.
Berndt, who taught at the school for three decades, was later charged with 23 counts of lewd conduct involving allegations that he spoon-fed semen to blindfolded children as part of what he purportedly called a "tasting game." He also was accused of placing cockroaches on their faces.
When the LAUSD learned of the investigation, he was fired. But Berndt contested his dismissal and the district agreed to pay him $40,000 to drop his appeal -- money that Deasy said the district should never have needed to pay. Deasy said Friday it should be returned and used to the benefit the victims.
“I want our $40,000 back. I want our $40,000 returned to LAUSD so we can spend it on hiring more counselors” for those abused by Berndt, he said.
The case prompted Deasy and other L.A. Unified officials to push for legislation that would speed the teacher dismissal process. The bill was vehemently opposed by the California Teachers Assn., United Teachers Los Angeles and other teachers unions, which called it an attack on due process rights. It failed in committee in Sacramento.
Deasy spoke angrily about the failed legislation, his voice rising almost to a shout, making clear his frustration with the unions for their opposition of efforts to make the teacher dismissal process less cumbersome and less expensive in order to protect school children.
“I’m not interested in adjusting or tweaking current laws so adult constituencies can feel comfortable,” he said. “Really? Really? You’re not comfortable with those changes? You feel discomfort? Come with me and spend time with some of the victims in Miramonte … that’s discomfort. I think we can do much better.”
Deasy said he was only interested in changes in the law that protect the rights of students first.
“They don’t have a lobbyist, they don’t have a union, they don’t have advocates and most times they don’t even have a voice,” he said. “We will continue to push hard -- relentlessly demand and insist on nothing less.”
Soon after Berndt's arrest, a second Miramonte teacher, Martin Springer, was arrested for alleged sexual misconduct involving a girl. He faces three counts of committing lewd acts; he has pleaded not guilty.
After the arrests, Deasy replaced the entire Miramonte staff — 85 teachers and about 25 others — for the remainder of the school year to restore confidence in the campus. All the displaced teachers and other staff were eventually exonerated and allowed to return to work.
The allegations brought a surge of legal action against L.A. Unified. The Miramonte case has led to payments of $29.54 million to settle lawsuits and claims from 63 students. The cases of 71 other students and 65 parents are still being litigated.
Attorneys who represent children with claims against the district have said they will continue to refuse settlement offers from the district and instead take their cases to court. They contend the district did not do enough to protect children and failed to remove Berndt after allegations surfaced years before his arrest.
During the investigation, it came to light that there had been previous complaints against the longtime teacher.
A female student reported that Berndt had tried to fondle her in September 1993, but there was not enough evidence to pursue charges at the time, authorities said. And two former students, now adults, also came forward, saying they had reported Berndt appeared to touch himself inappropriately during class.
But Berndt's personnel file was clean, officials said, a discovery that led the district to review employee records going back decades to consolidate information and root out potential problem employees. The district submitted or resubmitted for review hundreds of reports of alleged misconduct to the state Commission on Teacher Credentialing.
On Friday, Deasy also spoke of the implementation of a zero-tolerance policy for employee misconduct that sparked opposition by some parents and employees accusing him of overreacting. The number of teachers pulled from classrooms for investigation has ballooned.
Reports of possible inappropriate conduct soared, from 19 in the week before Berndt's arrest to 77 the week after, according to district records.
Parents at the time also complained about a lack of information regarding teachers or other staffers under investigation. Officials committed to confirming when an inquiry is under way but strictly limit what is disclosed due to the privacy rights of the employee and any affected students.
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