First settlements in Miramonte abuse case total $30 million
The Los Angeles Unified School District will pay about $30 million to settle 58 legal claims involving a former Miramonte Elementary School teacher accused of committing lewd acts on children, plaintiffs’ lawyers said Tuesday.
These are the first settlements in the high-profile case, which rocked the nation’s second-largest school system and prompted a flurry of new state and local policies to better protect students. Each of the victims will receive about $470,000 under the preliminary deal struck with L.A. Unified. The payouts mark the largest in a case involving one teacher in the district.
The pact, which must still be approved by a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge, covers about half of the identified victims at the school. Those who settled wanted to protect the children from drawn-out litigation that could potentially force them to testify and cause them more harm, their attorneys said.
“This settlement was reached without putting any child through difficult and intense litigation,” said David Ring, an attorney for seven students who agreed to the payment. “We acted in the best interests of these children, with the hope that they move on with their lives and try to put the Miramonte nightmare behind them.”
One mother, whose 12-year-old son was a student in the teacher’s class and will receive a settlement, said the amount was suitable — but still worries about how her son will deal with the abuse as he gets older. The money will help pay for the boy’s ongoing, regular therapy, she said.
“He didn’t know what happened to him until they told him,” she said in Spanish. “It hurts him now, but he’s still so young. Once he gets older, he will understand and it will hurt him so much more.”
L.A. Unified officials would not comment on the settlement amounts. District general counsel David Holmquist said that the mediation process was difficult but that it was done to “promote healing in the community.”
Mark Berndt, 61, was arrested in January 2012 after a yearlong investigation. The case came to authorities’ attention after a South Bay drugstore photo technician noticed images of children blindfolded, some with tape over their mouths. Berndt was charged with 23 counts of lewd conduct involving allegations that he spoon-fed semen to blindfolded children as part of what he purportedly called a tasting game. He’s also accused of feeding them semen-tainted cookies and placing cockroaches on their faces.
Berndt has pleaded not guilty to the charges and is being held in lieu of $23-million bail.
The claims accuse the district of not doing enough to protect students from Berndt even after fielding complaints about inappropriate conduct at the school. He was the target of a police investigation in 1993 involving allegations by a female student that he tried to fondle her, but the case was dropped after investigators determined there was insufficient evidence.
But after Berndt’s arrest, L.A. Supt. John Deasy said a sweeping internal investigation turned up no record of that charge or other documents involving past incidents or suspicions about the teacher.
Since then, Deasy has ordered that all teachers accused of misconduct be reported to the state credentialing commission, a sweeping action that covers hundreds of L.A. Unified instructors. The district also temporarily replaced Miramonte’s entire staff in the second half of the school year and required all employees to take a refresher course on the reporting of abuse.
In addition, state legislators proposed bills to give school boards more power to fire teachers accused of sexual misconduct and strip retirement pensions from instructors convicted of sex-related crimes against students; those have not been approved.
The settlements were reached after months of intense negotiations that began last September. Former state Supreme Court Justice Cruz Reynoso and former L.A. County Superior Court Judge Peter Lichtman presided over the mediation process between L.A. Unified and 17 law firms. The agreements included 14 of those firms.
In a joint statement, Reynoso and Lichtman said the agreements avoid “the pains of litigation” and instead provide “fair and reasonable compensation that respects the needs of the students affected.”
But attorneys representing other students who have not settled said the amounts announced Tuesday did not begin to address the harm inflicted on the children. Among 191 claims filed against the district, representing 129 students and 62 parents and guardians, 71 have not been resolved.
In 60 cases, lawyers Brian Claypool, Luis Carrillo and John Manly opted out of the mediation talks and have sued L.A. Unified. Their litigation also accuses the district of failing to protect students from the veteran teacher, among other allegations.
“The damage done by this teacher is long term,” said Manly, who represents more than 30 victims.
“The help and counseling these children will need will cost more than that. I believe a jury will see this for horror it is.”
Luis Carrillo, a South Pasadena attorney representing 23 victims, said it would cost $576,000 for lifetime treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder, eating problems and other consequences of Berndt’s alleged lewd conduct. “It is the intended strategy to put this out there to get other parents to settle ... but the amount is too low,” he said of the district’s decision to settle.
Tim Hale, a Santa Barbara attorney who specializes in sex-abuse cases, said he believed the Miramonte cases could potentially win million-dollar jury verdicts. Although Berndt is not accused of sexually abusing the students, Hale said that charges of feeding semen to them and placing cockroaches on their faces would horrify jurors.
“Those are the kinds of charges that could inflame a jury and result in seven-figure awards,” said Hale, who won settlements of $1.3 million each in 2006 for 25 sexual abuse victims of Franciscan priests.
-- Stephen Ceasar, Richard Winton and Teresa Watanabe
Photo: Los Angeles school police patrol outside Miramonte Elementary School in South Los Angeles. Credit: Al Seib / Los Angeles Times