Nov 21, 2014 2:43 PM

$139M deal reached in school molestation case

The Associated Press

LOS ANGELES (AP) The Los Angeles Unified School District will pay $139 million to end all remaining litigation involving an elementary school teacher convicted of committing numerous counts of lewd conduct against 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 cookies.

Plaintiff's lawyers had planned to present evidence suggesting the school district was aware of sexual misconduct by Berndt three decades ago but failed to act until a photo processor at a pharmacy contacted police about film Berndt dropped off that showed pictures of blindfolded children and being fed some substance.

The 19-year-old woman had only been on the job a month.

"She was told not to call the police by her supervisors and she did it, anyway," John Manley, one of the attorneys who filed the lawsuit, said at a news conference. "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 campus 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," school district Superintendent Ramon C. Cortines said in a statement. "Given these circumstances, we believe we struck a balance between those objectives."

Berndt was sentenced to 25 years in prison after pleading no contest to 23 counts of lewd conduct.

The settlement reached during jury selection is in addition to $30 million the district previously agreed to pay to settle 65 other cases involving Berndt.

Lawyers in the current case said it's believed to be the largest sex-abuse case settlement involving a school district.

"They were afraid of a blow-the-roof-off verdict to reach this kind of settlement," said Mary Jo McGrath, a lawyer not involved in the case who trains school administrators around the country. "The hope of this is that it hurts really bad for the school district and wakes people up."

Plaintiffs' lawyers said they uncovered evidence that LAUSD had destroyed potentially thousands of child abuse reports and logs that had been maintained for decades.

Manley said that in the 1980s, two Miramonte teachers reported that Berndt was exposing himself to students.

Several fourth-grade 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.

Around that period, a teacher observing Berndt's class reported to a principal that he was wearing loose-fitting shorts that exposed his genitals. The principal later denied receiving such a report and called the teacher a liar.

The Sheriff's Department investigated Berndt in 1994 but no charges were filed for lack of evidence.


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