L.A. Unified faces hefty costs from Miramonte School scandal

As the scandal over two Miramonte Elementary School teachers accused of committing lewd acts on children grows, it's becoming clear the Los Angeles Unified School District faces a heavy financial cost.

Miramonte will reopen Thursday with an all-new slate of teachers and administrators as well as custodians and cafeteria workers. But L.A. Unified will continue to pay the old staff even as they wait out the investigations at a high school under construction a few miles away.

It remains unclear how long this arrangement will last; the investigations are expected to take months to complete. The new hiring alone will run $5.7 million for the remainder of the school year, said district spokesman Thomas Waldman.

But those costs are likely to pale when compared to potential legal liability that experts said could run into the millions of dollars.

At least two dozen students at Miramonte Elementary have retained attorneys so far. The children allege they were victimized by teacher Mark Berndt, who was charged last week with 23 counts of lewd conduct.

Prosecutors allege that Berndt spoon-fed his semen to blindfolded students as part of what he called a "tasting game." Authorities last week announced that they had collected hundreds of disturbing photos Berndt had developed at a CVS pharmacy. In some, children are shown with a milky substance around their mouths or cockroaches crawling on their faces.

On Wednesday, detectives announced that they had discovered 200 more photos from the pharmacy late last week. Los Angeles Sheriff's Department Sgt. Dan Scott said the new photos are similar to the original ones and were found after the drugstore performed a computer search.

Scott said there are unidentified children in those photos, raising the specter of additional victims and more legal claims against the school system.

School district officials said they were aware that L.A. Unified, and possibly its insurers, are confronting potentially tens of millions of dollars in costs at a time of ongoing budget strains that have led to thousands of layoffs. But L.A. schools Supt. John Deasy said that at this point, those costs are not as important as rebuilding parent trust.

"I don't often say this, but that is the least thing I am worried about," Deasy said when asked about the accumulating expenses. "The No. 1 issue is: How do we support students?"

The district has estimated there to be about 150 teachers and administrators at Miramonte, which is in unincorporated Florence-Firestone south of downtown Los Angeles.

District documents set the average Miramonte teacher's salary at $69,206. Health benefits cost thousands more per person. The average elementary school principal's salary is $107,331. Also replaced were plant workers, cafeteria help and clerical staff. In addition, officials said, they have hired 45 counselors — enough to serve every Miramonte classroom.

During the transition, Deasy closed Miramonte for two days. Every day of attendance is worth about $40 per student, according to state figures. Unless the lost schooling is made up or excused by the state, L.A. Unified would lose more than $100,000. The day before the school closed, attendance dipped from a typical 98% to 72%, according to updated district figures. That difference alone calculates to about $15,000.

Authorities said the Berndt case could involve more than 100 children over five years.

Legal experts said it is difficult to estimate the district's legal exposure, but they said one key fact is whether the plaintiffs can show the district knew of past problems with Berndt.

"If there have been complaints and a failure to investigate, that clearly strengthens their case," said Tom Lyon, a professor of law and psychology at USC who specializes in child-abuse prosecutions.

The fact that the alleged acts occurred inside the classroom is likely to challenge the district's defense, he said.

When Berndt, 61, was arrested, school district officials said they had no record of previous misconduct or complaints . But past episodes have since emerged.

One former student told The Times that during the 1990-91 school year that a counselor told her and two other girls to stop inventing stories after a complaint that Berndt appeared to be masturbating behind his desk. In 1994, detectives investigated a claim that Berndt had tried to touch a girl's genitals, though prosecutors deemed the evidence too weak to file charges.

And one father said he complained in 2008 to the Miramonte principal after his daughter brought home photographs that Berndt had taken of her. In one image, she was eating a cookie coated with what investigators now suspect is Berndt's semen.

"To prove negligent hiring, retention or supervision, there has to be some reason to think that this person was creating a problem, or having an issue" in the past, said John Nockleby, a professor at Loyola Law School.

But if the criminal cases collapse, the picture could change considerably, said Dmitry Gorin, a former sex-crimes prosecutor.

Although detectives say they retrieved a spoon with Berndt's semen on it, that does not mean they can prove he used that spoon in connection with the students, Gorin said.

Moreover, the Berndt case doesn't involve sexual assault. In some photos, the children are smiling, as if they are playing a game.

"This isn't an easy case despite all the media attention," Gorin said.

Juries have awarded hefty civil settlements to students who were victims of abuse, including a $10.8-million judgment in La Verne and a $3.75-million judgment in Orange County.

In 2008, a civil jury awarded nearly $1.6 million to three girls molested by a former school aide who worked at Miramonte.

For now, school officials said they are not focused on potential settlements.

"Cost has not been raised and I don't know when it will be raised," said board member Steve Zimmer. "The beginning, middle and end of the discussion is about the safety of children at the school. I don't want the superintendent to pause for even a nanosecond because of funding in his efforts to secure and stabilize that campus."

On Wednesday, Miramonte teachers met with their replacements and parents continued to protest the wholesale change in staff. School officials stressed that the staff being removed are not suspected of wrongdoing. In fact, sheriff's detectives said Wednesday that they have no plans to make further arrests at this time.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
72°