The L.A. Unified School District has agreed to pay about $139 million to settle claims that a Miramonte Elementary School teacher abused his students, drawing to a close the lengthy case that led to changes in state law and district policies.
It is believed to be the largest payout ever by a school system in a child abuse case.
The size of the settlement reflects not only the harm students and their parents say was inflicted by former third-grade teacher Mark Berndt, but also the school district’s failure to take action on misconduct complaints involving Berndt years earlier.
John Manly, one of the plaintiffs’ attorneys, said the settlement was a signal that the district was taking responsibility for its failures. He said that it showed “a level of culpability and contrition by the district that is appropriate, and the hope for all of us is that it will lead to reforms so this doesn’t happen to another child in Los Angeles.”
The payouts will resolve legal claims from 69 Miramonte parents and 81 students who accused Berndt of lewd acts. L.A. Unified will pay the entire settlement — about 2% of its general fund budget — and a judge will determine how much each claim is worth. L.A. Unified already has paid about $30 million in claims to the families of 65 Miramonte students.
L.A. Unified general counsel David Holmquist said he hoped the settlement would “help the community heal and move forward.”
Berndt was arrested in 2012 and pleaded no contest last year to 23 charges of lewd conduct, including feeding children his semen in what he called a tasting game. He was sentenced to 25 years in prison.
But it was L.A. Unified that was left to face fury from community members, dozens of legal claims and the challenge of overhauling a school system accused of mishandling years of abuse allegations.
Then-Supt. John Deasy removed more than 200 teachers from their classrooms in the two years after Berndt’s arrest. The entire staff at Miramonte was temporarily replaced in the second half of the school year, and all employees were required to review the rules on abuse reporting.
A zero-tolerance policy for employee misconduct was enforced. A review of employee files going back decades was ordered in an effort to rid the district of potential problem employees. L.A. Unified also submitted, or resubmitted, hundreds of reports of alleged misconduct to the state Commission on Teacher Credentialing.
The new procedures led to additional outrage. The teachers union charged that the district was overreacting, holding instructors allegedly involved in misconduct in “teacher jails” for far too long without giving them information on their cases and unjustly firing others.
A high-profile investigative panel formed by Deasy to review abuse at Miramonte was shut down before it began its inquiry. District officials cited a lack of funds, but critics argued the school system was afraid of what the panel might have found.
In January, L.A. Unified assembled a team of experienced law enforcement officials to take over investigations into sexual abuse. The team has since investigated dozens of new allegations and has operated at a quicker pace than when investigations were left to principals, according to figures provided by the district.
The Miramonte case resulted in state legislation. Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill this year aimed at speeding the dismissal of public school teachers for gross misconduct.
At the center of the scandal was a once-popular teacher accustomed to receiving invitations to students’ birthday parties and quinceañeras during his three-decade tenure. Fond of Hawaiian shirts and class field trips, Berndt, 63, was known to hand out lollipops and silly nicknames. He joined children for dodgeball games, sent them holiday cards and managed to turn seemingly mundane topics into interesting lessons.
But in the fall of 2010, a drugstore photo technician processed a photo that showed a child blindfolded and gagged with clear tape. Other photos showed a spoon filled with a milky liquid, which was also seen in and around children’s mouths. Attorneys said Friday they had 700-800 photos and that there was a “volcano of evidence” against the school system.
“But for a young woman at CVS pharmacy, Mark Berndt might still be teaching and terrorizing children at Miramonte,” said Brian Claypool, an attorney who represented some of the families.
Los Angeles County sheriff’s investigators began quietly looking into Berndt.
A detective found a spoon in Berndt’s classroom trash can that looked like the one in the photos. It tested positive for traces of semen that matched Berndt’s DNA.
Authorities later found that Berndt had been the target of a 1994 police investigation in which a girl accused the teacher of reaching toward her genitals while she was taking a test. Prosecutors had determined there was insufficient evidence to file charges.
Two women who said they had been Berndt’s students in the 1990s came forward after his arrest and said they had seen the teacher masturbating behind his desk. They said they had informed a school counselor who advised them to stop making up stories. Other former students recalled to The Times that the teacher had a habit of putting his hand inside the waistband of his pants and that he often perched himself on the steps near the playground, his legs splayed.
Court documents released last month revealed that in 1983, a parent complained that Berndt had dropped his pants during a student field trip to a museum. The principal at the time made notes about the incident in a memo, but Berndt remained on staff.
In 2008, the district destroyed about 2,000 reports that may have been duplicated elsewhere containing abuse allegations, because officials determined that state law banned them from possessing the forms due to privacy rules, according to an L.A. Unified spokesman.
Dozens of claims were settled last year for about $30 million, but a contingent of parents and students opted to take their grievances to civil court. Testimony in the case was expected to begin in December, but L.A. Superior Court Judge John Shepard Wiley continued to push both parties to reach an agreement. The Board of Education met behind closed doors Tuesday evening to discuss settlement terms.
The mother of one of the girls in Berndt’s photographs said she was happy to see the case concluded, but that her trust in the school system would never be repaired.
“All my confidence in them is gone,” she said in Spanish. “Nothing is the same anymore.” She said her daughter is now 13 and prone to fits of weeping. “She just cries and cries and cries.”
Friday’s announcement “sends a clear message that this better never happen again,” said Loyola Law School professor Laurie L. Levenson. As large as the settlement is, it could prove merely a down payment if the district doesn’t better police future sexual misconduct, she said.
Schools Supt. Ramon C. Cortines said the district would continue to work with parents and communities to better protect students.
“Our goal from the outset of these appalling revelations has been to spare the Miramonte community the anguish of a protracted trial, while at the same time being mindful of the financial consequences stemming from settlement,” he said in a statement. “Given these circumstances, we believe we struck a balance between those objectives.”
The district still is involved in litigation with insurance carriers over how much of L.A. Unified’s legal and settlement costs should be covered.
Plaintiffs’ attorney Claypool said lawyers wanted to make sure the school district “stepped up and fairly compensated each and every child and parent for the lifelong drama that they have endured and they will continue to endure.”
Attorneys will compile information about each of their clients — including psychological reports, depositions and expert opinions — and attempt to quantify the duration and extent of the abuse endured. It will then be up to retired Judge Charles “Tim” W. McCoy Jr. to review the validity of each claim and decide the appropriate amount for each family. Wiley, the trial judge, must approve recommended settlements.
Outside the downtown Los Angeles County courthouse where jury selection in the case began earlier this week, Claypool urged school officials to safeguard children in the school system. “No more rhetoric,” he said. “Today is not the end of the Miramonte child abuse scandal, it is the beginning of change.”
Times staff writer Howard Blume contributed to this report.