LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles Unified School District will pay more than $139 million to end remaining litigation involving an elementary school teacher convicted of committing numerous lewd acts on his students, according to the settlement announced Friday.
The deal involving 81 students puts a legal end to the saga that began when Miramonte Elementary School teacher Mark Berndt was arrested in 2012 and accused of blindfolding students and feeding them his semen on spoons and cookies. The settlement is believed to be the largest ever for a school sex abuse case, according to victims’ lawyers, and increases the district’s price for the scandal to $170 million when combined with 65 cases settled earlier for $30 million.
Plaintiff’s lawyers had planned to present evidence at trial next month that the school district was aware of sexual misconduct by Berndt over three decades but failed to act until a photo processor at a pharmacy contacted police about pictures of blindfolded children being fed some substance.
The 19-year-old woman had only been on the job a month at CVS when she discovered the troubling photos and learned Berndt had been processing similar pictures there since 2005, said John Manly, one of the attorneys who filed the lawsuit.
“She was told not to call the police by her supervisors and she did it anyway,” Manly said. “If she hadn’t made that call, we wouldn’t be here today and he’d still be teaching.”
The case led to an overhaul of how the nation’s second-largest school district handles allegations of sexual abuse. After Berndt’s arrest, the district removed all 130 staff members from the school and placed them at an unopened empty school during the lengthy investigation.
“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 settlements,” district Superintendent Ramon C. Cortines said in a statement. “We believe we struck a balance between those objectives.”
The investigation caused a huge upheaval at the school, where most of the students are from poor Hispanic homes. Parents had been hesitant to complain about Berndt because of a deep respect for teachers, and they were reluctant to cooperate with police because many feared deportation.
Berndt was sentenced to 25 years in prison after pleading no contest to 23 counts of lewd conduct. He was able to avoid being fired after his arrest and retired from teaching with his pension.
Lawyers in the current case said they rejected earlier settlement offers because they wanted to find out what had happened at the school.
They said they managed to uncover a dozen incidents involving Berndt between 1983 and 2009, even though the school district had purged thousands of child abuse reports and logs that had been maintained for decades.
The district said it only destroyed copies of law enforcement documents that it didn’t think it should keep.
Among the findings:
– Two teachers reported Berndt was exposing himself to students in the mid-1990s.
– Several girls had complained in the early 1990s that Berndt was masturbating in class, but the allegations were dismissed and the girls were accused of lying.
– The Sheriff’s Department investigated Berndt in 1994 but prosecutors declined to bring charges for lack of evidence.
In one instance, a principal had noted that a parent complained about Berndt dropping his shorts on a school field trip. In a note, Berndt thanked the principal for supporting him and wrote: “I did learn at least one thing for sure! Not to take students to the museum while wearing baggy shorts!”
No action was taken to remove Berndt, then a popular third-grade teacher, in any of those incidents.
The district claimed that Berndt went to lengths to hide his behavior and he was pulled from the classroom as soon as it learned about his trove of photos.
“It’s safe to say that if these actions (occurred) today, we’d behave differently,” said Dave Holmquist, general counsel for the district. “We’re much more sensitized to these issues.”
The hefty settlement – an average of $1.7 million per pupil – indicates the district missed trouble signs or improperly investigated complaints, said Mary Jo McGrath, an education lawyer who trains school administrators on issues such as preventing sexual abuse.
“They were afraid of a blow-the-roof-off verdict to reach this kind of settlement,” said McGrath, who was not involved in the case. “The hope of this is that it hurts really bad for the school district and wakes people up.”
A retired judge has been appointed to evaluate each claim made in the lawsuit and determine how much money each child gets based on the nature and duration of the abuse and its impact, which runs the gamut from kids doing well to being suicidal.
Attorney Brian Claypool said one of his clients, a little girl, told her therapist that she wasn’t sure she wanted to live anymore.
“Her mom told the counselor that she envisioned herself walking to the edge of a pier and then jumping into the ocean,” he said. “That’s an example of the depth of grief these families have suffered.”