State audit looms in wake of Miramonte arrests
A state legislator plans to launch an audit of the Los Angeles Unified School District in response to the lewd conduct arrests of two Miramonte Elementary teachers and other recent sexual abuse allegations, The Times has learned.
Miramonte attracted widespread attention with the January arrest of former teacher Mark Berndt, who has pleaded not guilty to 23 counts of lewd conduct. Berndt allegedly photographed blindfolded students being spoon-fed his semen as part of a “tasting game.” A second Miramonte teacher, Martin Springer, is charged with fondling a student and also has pleaded not guilty.
“After reading what was happening at Miramonte Elementary School and all the other incidents I felt it was important to evaluate LAUSD’s handling of claims of abuse against children,” said Assemblyman Ricardo Lara (D-South Gate), who chairs the Legislature’s audit committee. “All these shocking incidents highlight lapses in the school district, and I wonder how can this be happening.”
Lara wants an independent state team to review both the school district’s policies and how well they are being carried out to protect children. He also wants the audit to look at the role of other agencies, such as the Sheriff’s Department, in handling these cases.
“It took 11 months for the authorities to arrest [Berndt], and I just want to understand why it took so long,” he said in an interview.
Lara said he wants to learn how much L.A. Unified has paid out because of litigation over sexual misconduct that victimized children.
“I’m very interested in seeing these so-called secret settlements,” Lara said. “I want to get some answers on behalf of my community: How much money was spent? Where are the teachers now? What happened to the families? I’m trying to shed as much light as possible.”
Lara’s district boundary line is across the street from Miramonte, and he represents families who send their children to the school. Miramonte is located in unincorporated Florence-Firestone, southeast of downtown L.A.
The legislator’s request for an inquiry does not make it automatic, but Lara said he expects the investigation to win formal approval when the full committee meets later this week. His staff said the inquiry could last six to nine months and cost the state up to $300,000.
The assemblyman is expected to formally notify L.A. Unified about the audit on Monday, and the school system will have the option of testifying to the audit committee before its members vote.
Earlier, L.A. schools Supt. John Deasy announced plans to convene an independent commission with goals similar to Lara’s. But Lara insisted the state review is nonetheless justified. Deasy was not immediately available for comment.
-- Howard Blume
Photo: A teacher newly assigned to Miramonte Elementary leads her students out to recess. Credit: Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times