Six years ago, the Los Angeles Unified School District found itself at the center of a high-profile teacher sex abuse scandal.
The year was 2008, and then-L.A. schools Deputy Supt. Ramon C. Cortines reacted firmly amid revelations that a school administrator, Steve Rooney, had sex with an underage student at one campus before being transferred to another, where he molested two girls.
Cortines oversaw new practices to improve communication with law enforcement agencies, conduct internal investigations of any employee under suspicion of wrongdoing and keep accused instructors out of classrooms until they are cleared.
But in the last couple of years, L.A. Unified found itself dealing with an even larger scandal. On Friday, the district approved paying the staggering sum of more than $139 million to alleged victims of former Miramonte Elementary teacher Mark Berndt.
The settlement has Cortines — the current superintendent — and others concerned that other earlier reforms didn’t work and considering what needs to be done for the district to better protect students from sexual misconduct by adults.
Even after the Rooney case, a small number of sexual predators still worked for L.A. Unified; some had managed to keep their jobs for years without calling much attention to themselves.
“Some of these people are very smart,” said Cortines, “and they have strategies” to avoid being caught.
As with Rooney’s case, and other abuse cases before it, the Berndt episode led to aggressive responses.
Former Supt. John Deasy decided to pull employees from their duties the moment an allegation was made or wrongdoing suspected. The number of suspended and dismissed employees ballooned, leading some to accuse him of overreacting.
School board member Tamar Galatzan said the issue was larger than Miramonte.
“There were several situations in the time that I’ve been on the board that showed that the district had to step up the investigation, the reporting and the record keeping. I think we’ve made necessary steps to do that,” she said.
These measures include a new internal investigative team, a permanent database on teacher conduct and a pledge to provide more information both to parents and to the accused.
Critics still question the district’s commitment.
Former state legislator Martha Escutia, who was part of the legal team suing L.A. Unified, said the district never followed through with a promise to set up a commission to examine what went wrong and what measures to adopt.
“We still have that question outstanding: What happened?” Escutia said.
Several times after Berndt joined the school system in 1976, some children complained about bizarre or sexually tinged behavior. In some instances, the children were doubted. In others, the evidence was sketchy. The incidents also generally were far apart and not tracked over time.
“In some cases, adults think that comments by students are not relevant, but they are,” said Cortines, who came out of retirement to take over the school system last month. “I think we’re more aware of that now.”
“I don’t want to put the children and their families in a scare mode,” he said, adding that children need to be encouraged to report things that bother them.
Attorneys for Miramonte students and their families cited the Berndt case as proof that L.A. Unified has been negligent. The size of the settlement, said attorney John Manly, is evidence that the district feared a jury would agree.
The Berndt case was unusual. The third-grade teacher had convinced students they were playing a tasting game when he allegedly had them eat cookies tainted with his semen.
This activity, among others, was uncovered when a drugstore employee alerted law enforcement about bizarre photos of children found on film Berndt had brought to develop.
Last year, he pleaded no contest to 23 counts of lewd conduct and received a 25-year prison sentence.
Cortines said the district has learned from Miramonte.
“We listen better,” he said. “We see better.”
He said he’s also learned that he can never assume that the problem will be completely addressed.
“You can’t predict what is going to happen,” he said. “You can’t pass enough rules. You can’t institute enough policies. You can’t screen employees in a way that you’re going to catch every issue that needs to be looked at.”
In addition to last week’s settlement, an additional $30 million was previously paid out to resolve other cases involving Berndt and another Miramonte teacher against whom charges were later dropped.
The total of $169 million, plus $11 million in legal fees, would fund a one-year 7% bonus for teachers. To save that much money, the district would have to make every employee take 12 unpaid days off.
L.A. Unified avoided such measures by starting to put aside higher sums in a self-insurance fund. In 2010-11, before the allegations against Berndt came to light, the district paid $12.4 million into the fund. In the ensuing four years, the district set aside $30.7 million, $80.5 million, $37.7 million and $23.3 million.
The money was not just for the Berndt case — there were other costly abuse cases as well — but the Miramonte allegations were the major driver.
“When we know there is some sort of liability, the accounting rules require us to do our best estimate and recognize it,” said Megan Reilly, the district’s chief financial officer.
Whether L.A. Unified could have anticipated the abuse beforehand would have been the subject of the trial. That was avoided with Friday’s agreement.