A Los Angeles Superior Court judge on Friday denied a request by attorneys representing the Los Angeles school district to impose a so-called gag order on those involved in litigation related to child abuse at Miramonte Elementary School.
Attorneys requested the order to ensure that the jury, expected to be selected next week, would not be influenced by comments made by lawyers outside the courtroom, not to limit media coverage of the case, said Sean Andrade, an attorney representing L.A. Unified.
“Our goal is to ensure that the jury is able to consider all of the facts in the case without undue commentary from the lawyers,” he said in a statement. “Our goal is not to limit the media from covering, but to prevent the additional theatrics and misleading information that often come with arguments made outside of court.”
Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge John Shepard Wiley said in his ruling that L.A. Unified failed to provide sufficient evidence that statements to the media by participants in the case are imminent threats to the jury pool.
Plaintiffs’ attorney Brian Claypool, who represents 16 students and 27 parents seeking damages, said the public has a right to transparency during the trial and that the district has made a concerted effort to minimize the spread of information about their role in the case.
The Miramonte scandal has become the largest child abuse case in L.A. Unified. Teacher Mark Berndt was arrested in January 2012 and accused of spoon-feeding his semen to students as part of what he allegedly called a tasting game. Berndt pleaded no contest last November to 23 counts of lewd conduct and received a 25-year prison sentence.
About 60 former students and about 40 parents are seeking damages in civil cases. The district already has paid about $30 million in settlements to 65 children and their families along with millions in legal fees and other costs.
Jury selection in the case is expected to begin Monday and attorneys from both sides have been ordered to attend a settlement conference that afternoon.
“We hope that plaintiffs’ counsel will work with us toward a fruitful conversation,” Andrade said. “However, we remain committed to trying these matters in a sensitive and respectful manner.”
Claypool said he and other plaintiff attorneys will make a good-faith effort to discuss possible settlements on Monday and have a monetary value they have deemed as a fair, appropriate settlement. That figure, however, is “worlds away” from what the district has offered, he said.
Los Angeles Board of Education member Monica Ratliff is expected to offer two proposals Tuesday dealing with criminal misconduct at district schools.
One would direct Supt. Ramon Cortines to oversee a plan to provide enough staffing so that two adults would be present in any classroom with students.
The other would direct the superintendent to provide a report to the board detailing the district’s annual expenses over the last five years for the costs of litigation, awards, settlement and other costs related to criminal actions at district schools.