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L.A. Unified accused of bullying in Miramonte student abuse cases

Abusive BehaviorJustice SystemCrime, Law and JusticeJobs and WorkplaceGavin Newsom

Attorneys representing a group of Miramonte students and parents responded aggressively to renewed pressure on their clients to settle abuse claims filed with the Los Angeles Unified School District.

They accused the nation's second-largest school system of bullying tactics. They also asserted L.A. Unified continues to put students at risk by failing to act on recommendations they first put forward in September.

L.A. Unified "uses fear and intimidation to quiet and silence victims,” said attorney Brian Claypool.

"The school district fails to protect children," said attorney Luis Carrillo. "And guess what? The abuse continues.” Carrillo said his firm represents 10 additional non-Miramonte victims from seven different schools.

The school district this week launched a new website underscoring the deadline for settlement offers. The site includes a countdown clock clicking toward the deadline second by second.

Alleged abuse victims from Miramonte Elementary, in Florence-Firestone, have until July 5 to accept the current offers, officials said.

"The reason we’re setting up the website is to provide information to the community -- both to the community at Miramonte and to the taxpaying community at large," said Sean Rossall, an L.A. Unified spokesman.

"There is a finite time on these offers," he said. "The idea is not to ratchet up the pressure, but to make sure the community understands there are deadlines on this.”

The damage claims stem from allegations that former teacher Mark Berndt spoon-fed his semen to blindfolded students as part of what he called a "tasting game," among other alleged incidents of abusive conduct.

Berndt, 62, has pleaded not guilty and awaits trial.

The new web page includes a sample lifetime payment structure that, with interest, is expected to provide victims at least $770,000 each. The upfront cost to the district or its insurers would work out to about $485,000 per student.

There are 65 student claims and 63 parent claims remaining, Rossall said. The latest settlement offer applies to 35 students who were part of an earlier dispute-resolution process. L.A. Unified reached an earlier round of settlements in March with 61 alleged victims. Those settlement deals were somewhat larger, with an upfront payout of about $500,000 per student.

The district's latest offer is part of a litigation strategy. If a court verdict falls below the offer, for example, the suing parties would be responsible for some legal costs, officials said.

It's premature to talk settlement and no agreement would be reached before L.A. Unified provides more information and does more to protect children, said attorney Vince Finaldi, the third lead attorney in the group participating in the news conference at district headquarters. 

Their demands include setting up an anonymous tip line along with an independent child safety office and inviting in a law-enforcement agency for a top-to-bottom investigation.

They also called for retraining district employees on child-abuse reporting, which the district already has done. Employees also have to take annual reviews and sign a compliance form.

District officials insisted that they have moved decisively to enhance student protections, investigate allegations and remove any employees who could pose a risk.

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Twitter: @howardblume | howard.blume@latimes.com

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