L.A. Unified aims to settle Miramonte lawsuits by end of January
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Lawyers for the Los Angeles Unified School District announced Thursday that by the end of January the district intends to settle 189 legal claims filed in connection with lewd-conduct charges against a former teacher at Miramonte Elementary School.
District officials said former state Supreme Court Justice Cruz Reynoso is overseeing the mediation process between the district and 16 law firms that represent 126 students, parents, relatives and guardians. The claims accuse the district of not doing enough to protect students from veteran instructor Mark Berndt, even after fielding complaints about inappropriate conduct at the school.
Settlements would be paid for out of the district’s liability fund and possibly in part by an insurance policy.
The mediation process, which district officials say was developed in collaboration with attorneys representing those who filed claims and lawsuits, is intended to avoid forcing the children into a likely lengthy court proceeding, said L.A. Unified general counsel Dave Holmquist.
All sides worked to “develop a process that respects the privacy of students, treats them with respect and protects them from having to go out in court and testify,” he said.
All have agreed to take part in the mediation process except attorneys who filed suits earlier this week.
That litigation — four lawsuits filed Monday by the firm Manly & Stewart — accuses the district of failing to protect students from the veteran teacher, among other allegations. The two lawyers representing the students, John Manly and former state Sen. Martha Escutia, have refused to participate in the negotiations.
Berndt, 61, faces 23 counts of lewd conduct and is being held in lieu of $23-million bail. He has pleaded not guilty. He has been accused of spoon-feeding semen to blindfolded children as part of what he allegedly called a tasting game. He’s also accused of putting cockroaches on children’s faces and feeding them semen-tainted cookies.
Authorities began investigating Berndt after a drugstore clerk turned over bizarre photos of students taking part in these acts. The film allegedly had been dropped off by Berndt.
District officials have defended their response. They said they have provided counseling and help for affected families, cooperated fully with law enforcement and acted quickly and comprehensively to address shortcomings in their response to allegations. The district also replaced the entire staff of the school, located in Florence-Firestone, for the second half of the 2011-12 school year.
Settlement talks between L.A. Unified and attorneys have been collaborative and thus far successful in their goal of protecting students from needlessly being subjected to difficult court proceedings, said Greg McNair, a L.A. Unified attorney.
“There are some very good lawyers — respectable lawyers on the other side who care about kids,” McNair said. “The lawyers that do care about the kids are the ones that want to be in the process and those lawyers have actually been at the table talking to us about what they think a good process looks like.”
Berndt was arrested in January but removed from the school a year earlier.
-- Stephen Ceasar