Record $139 million settlement reached in Miramonte school sex abuse case

December 3rd, 2014 by Staff

Former teacher Mark Berndt entered a plea of no contest to 23 counts of lewd conduct with a child.


(NBCLOSANGELES.COM) LOS ANGELES, Calif. – A settlement in the long-fought Miramonte sex abuse civil case has officially been accepted by both sides, with Los Angeles Unified School District paying a record $139 million to more than 70 victims of sexual abuse.

Each child will receive about $1.7 million, according to counsel for the plaintiffs. The total will be $139,250,000, according to the district.

The case was to be the first trial of lawsuits stemming from the sex abuse scandal at Miramonte Elementary School.
Attorneys for LAUSD and former students of teacher Mark Berndt have been meeting all week in an effort to reach a settlement.

Berndt was sentenced to 25 years in prison after pleading no contest to 23 counts of lewd conduct with a child between 2005 and 2010.

“In 2012, the school district shared in the shock and disgust upon learning of the misconduct committed by one of its teachers at Miramonte Elementary School,” a statement issued by the district reads. “Even though the school district didn’t know about Mr. Berndt’s behavior, we have an obligation to protect the students we serve. We are truly sorry that these students had their trust violated by this sick individual.”

Los Angeles Superior Court Judge John Shepard Wiley had been urging the attorneys to try to resolve the case without a trial. But with no settlement in place, jury selection began Monday.

The lawsuit involves former Miramonte students, with dozens of other cases still pending.

The district has already settled more than 60 claims for about $30 million over the abuse. This settlement will mostly end all current litigation stemming from the Berndt case, the district said in its statement.

Earlier in the week, attorney Luis Carrillo, who represents some of the Miramonte students and their families, said he wanted to take the case to trial.

“We’re anxious. We want to get in front of a jury, a representative jury so that the community can see 30 years of abuse,” he said.

Attorneys contended the district should be held responsible for Berndt’s actions. They allege district officials were aware of complaints about his behavior for years.

Superintendent Ramon Cortines said in a statement the settlement struck a balance between sparing the students the pain of a trial and the financial burden to the district.

“Throughout this case, we have shared in the pain felt by these children, their families and the community,” he said. “Each day, we are responsible for the safety of more than 600,000 students. There is a sacred trust put in us to protect the children we serve.”

Cortines said Berndt went to “extreme lengths to hide his conduct” and “the only way we can have the safest schools is through partnerships with parents and the community.”

Since the Miramonte scandal broke with the arrest of Berndt, the district has been putting aside a reserve fund in anticipation of any pay out.

The district hopes to recoup the settlement through its insurance company.

Sheriff’s officials said the investigation of Berndt began when a film processor turned over more than 40 photographs of children in a classroom, with their eyes blindfolded and mouths covered in tape.

Some of the pictures showed Berndt with his arm around the children or with his hand over their mouths, according to the Sheriff’s Department.

A sheriff’s sergeant said some of the photographs “depicted girls with what appeared to be a blue plastic spoon, filled with an unknown clear/white liquid substance, up to their mouths as if they were going to ingest the substance.”

Some photos also showed children with a large roach on their faces, sheriff’s officials said.

Sheriff’s officials said detectives found a blue plastic spoon and an empty container in the trash in Berndt’s classroom.

Both items tested positive for semen, officials said. DNA testing matched it to Berndt, according to the Sheriff’s Department.
It took an arsenal of attorneys to represent the 82 children benefiting from the latest settlement.

Despite the settlement, there are still lingering doubts and resentment.

Plaintiff attorney John Manly blasted LAUSD’s Office of General Counsel and said “every dirty trick” the attorneys representing them used was approved by the office.

He said the expert witnesses the district hired for the case were prepared to make arguments that the case was not “sexual” in nature, using examples of a parent using semen as nourishment for a starving family.

“Board members should hang their heads in shame,” Manly said. “They never even showed up to a mediation, never met with a client, never asked to meet them. They don’t know a single child’s name.”

School board members Monica Ratliff and Tamar Galatzan declined to comment. Other board members did not return calls seeking comment.

“If you don’t care enough about children to step up and say what’s happening, you ought not be there,” Manly said.
At least two board members are up for re-election next year.

Brian Claypool, who also represented some of the students, pointed to what he called the years of neglect by the school district.

“He should’ve been fired in 1983,” he said, discussing a handwritten letter Berndt sent to the Miramonte principal at the time after an incident in which he allegedly flashed his genitals to students.

The note read: “I did learn one thing for sure! Not to take the kids to the museum while wearing baggy shorts! Thanks again, Mark.”

“How in the world can LAUSD tell the community they didn’t know about Mark Berndt?” Claypool said. “They flat out knew.”

Claypool said what attorneys for the plaintiffs have done over the last two and a half years is their own investigation into the way LAUSD handles child abuse perpetrators and victims.

But Manly said what might be water under the bridge now that there’s a settlement, is more reason for the public to press the district to make changes from the top.

“The public needs to make sure that the truth gets to these people,” Manly said.

Plaintiffs Attorney Andrew Zeytuntsyan said the children and the parents can “start the healing process by putting this mess behind them.”

“More than anything, it’s for the good of the children,” said the parent of one of the victims in Spanish outside Miramonte Friday. “No money in the world can clean that stain.”


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