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Judge keeps details of Miramonte sex abuse investigation secret

Trials and ArbitrationJustice SystemMark Berndt
Judge wants to protect the privacy of Miramonte Elementary School sex abuse victims
L.A. Unified was "false and abusive" in handling of some evidence in the Miramonte Elementary sex abuse case

A two-year sheriff’s investigation into child abuse at Miramonte Elementary School will remain confidential, a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge ruled Friday. 

Judge John Shepard Wiley said the privacy and well-being of victims was paramount. 

In the same ruling, Wiley fined the L.A. Unified School District $6,000 for not directly acknowledging and turning over photos to attorneys suing the nation’s second-largest school system.

The Miramonte scandal has become the largest child abuse case in L.A. Unified. Officers arrested teacher Mark Berndt in January 2012. He 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. He pleaded no contest in November to 23 counts of lewd conduct and received a 25-year sentence.

Berndt's plea avoided a criminal trial, and attorneys suing on behalf of children and their families have battled for access to evidence that could have been part of that prosecution, including thousands of photos.

By and large, the judge ruled, attorneys will have access to such materials, but they won’t enter the public domain except as they become exhibits in the civil trials.

“Many victims were pained to view photos of themselves,” the judge wrote. “Having the photos displayed for others has more potential to cause anguish.”

Wiley also was concerned that unfiltered law-enforcement documents could present a skewed impression of the case.

“We appreciate Judge Wiley’s thoughtful consideration of the privacy issues before him,” said Sean Rossall, a spokesman for L.A. Unified. “Since first learning about the allegations against Mr. Berndt, we have endeavored to ensure that the children and families involved have the privacy needed to heal.”

But Wiley also chastised the district for not being candid about evidence in its possession, characterizing the district’s behavior as “false and abusive.”

“These sanctions will send a message to the school district to stop their shenanigans..and to provide honest answers in the future,” said attorney Luis Carrillo, who represents families suing L.A. Unified.

As another protective measure, the judge specified that attorneys cannot interview families who wish to maintain their privacy -- unless they have filed claims against the school system, said attorney John Manly, who also represents Miramonte families.

Manly and the other attorneys had wanted as much access -- for themselves and the public -- as possible. 

About 60 former students and about 40 parents are seeking damages in civil cases; the first trial is scheduled for July. The district already has paid about $30 million in settlements to 63 children and their families along with millions in legal fees and other costs.

Wiley's ruling was tentative, but he signaled his intent Friday to make its main provisions final. He considered imposing additional sanctions against L.A. Unified but delayed a ruling on that issue.

 

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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