L.A. Unified settles Miramonte abuse claims for $30 million
The Los Angeles Unified School District will pay about $30 million to settle 58 legal claims filed by students and parents in connection with lewd-conduct charges against a former teacher at Miramonte Elementary School, plaintiffs' lawyers said Tuesday.
Each of the victims will receive about $470,000 under the preliminary deal struck with L.A. Unified, the lawyers said. The settlement covers about half of the identified victims at the school and is designed to avoid long drawn-out litigation that could potentially do more harm to the children, those attorneys said.
A Los Angeles County Superior Court judge still needs to review and approve the settlements, L.A. Unified officials said.
Ray Boucher, an attorney who represents 13 students and parents, said the desire to protect children from needlessly being subjected to difficult court proceedings was paramount.
“This was the right thing to do for the kids,” he said.
Still, the settlement amount and the mediation process was hard-fought.
“The school district came in with incredibly low and unrealistic expectations of what it would take to resolve these cases -– but ultimately they did the right thing,” he said.
L.A. Unified officials would not comment on the settlement amounts. L.A. Unified General Counsel David Holmquist said that the entire process had been very difficult but that it was done to "promote healing in the community."
David Ring, attorney for seven of the victims who settled, said that “this settlement was reached without putting any child through difficult and intense litigation. 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.”
Former state Supreme Court Justice Cruz Reynoso and and former L.A. County Superior Court Judge Peter Lichtman oversaw the mediation process between L.A. Unified and 17 law firms. The settlements announced Tuesday included 14 of those firms.
"Through an early resolution process, we've been able to settle a large number of the Miramonte cases in a manner that enables the children and the families to avoid the pains of litigation, but provides fair and reasonable compensation that respects the needs of the students affected," according to a statement by Reynoso and Lichtman.
The claims accuse the district of not doing enough to protect students from veteran instructor Mark Berndt, even after fielding complaints about inappropriate conduct at the school.
A total of 191 claims were filed against the district, representing 129 Miramonte students and 62 parents and guardians. There are still 71 students whose claims have not been resolved.
In 60 cases, lawyers Brian Claypool, Luis Carrillo and John Manly opted out of the mediation talks. They have sued L.A. Unified and those cases will be heard together.
The litigation also accuses the district of failing to protect students from the veteran teacher, among other allegations.
Holmquist said the district remains "ready and willing" to work with attorneys if they decide to enter into settlement talks.
Berndt, 61, faces 23 counts of lewd conduct and is being held in lieu of $23-million bail. He has pleaded not guilty.
He has been accused of spoon-feeding semen to blindfolded children as part of what he allegedly called a tasting game. He’s also accused of putting cockroaches on children's faces and feeding them semen-tainted cookies.
Settlements would be paid from of the district’s liability fund and Holmquist said he expects insurance to cover those amounts.
-- Stephen Ceasar and Richard Winton
Photo: Students arrive on the first day of school at Miramonte Elementary in August 2012. Credit: Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times