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Category: Mark Berndt

LAUSD to pay Miramonte victims $30 million; teacher due in court

Now that the Los Angeles Unified School District has agreed to a $30-million settlement in the Miramonte Elementary School case, the teacher accused of lewd acts against dozens of children is set to appear in court next month.

Mark Berndt, 61, faces 23 felony counts of lewd conduct involving the alleged spoon-feeding of semen to students that were blindfolded and the placement of cockroaches on their faces.

Berndt has been in custody since his arrest in February 2012 and is being held in lieu of $23 million bail. Detectives had been investigating the alleged abuse for more than a year after a drugstore photo processor showed police disturbing images of blindfolded and gagged children being spoon-fed a liquid.

FULL COVERAGE: Teacher sex-abuse investigations

The alleged victims were boys and girls between 7 and 10 years old. Berndt had been teaching in the district since 1979 and was respected by parents of former students. Nearly 200 legal claims have been filed against the Los Angeles Unified School District by parents in the wake of Berndt’s arrest.

On Tuesday, lawyers representing parents in 58 of those claims announced a $30-million settlement with LAUSD. The mediation lasted about six months and involved more than a dozen law firms.

Attorneys said they wanted to spare children painful litigation and testimony.

PHOTOS: Parent uproar over sex-abuse claims

The settlements are the first in a case that rocked the nation's second-largest school system and prompted a flurry of new policies to better protect students. Each of the alleged victims will receive about $470,000 under the preliminary deal. It is the largest payout in a case involving a single teacher in the district.

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L.A. Unified settles Miramonte abuse claims for $30 million

PHOTOS: Parent uproar over sex-abuse claims

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.

FULL COVERAGE: Teacher sex-abuse investigations

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.

PHOTOS: Parent uproar over sex-abuse claims

“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.”

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Bell trial: Ex-councilwoman says Rizzo offered her pay increase

Former Bell Councilwoman Teresa Jacobo in court last month. Credit: Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times

Teresa Jacobo, the first defendant to testify in the Bell corruption trial, returned to the witness stand Friday.

The former council member testified earlier that she made just $500 a month when she joined the city in 2001 and continued selling real estate.

Jacobo, along with former council members Luis Artigo, Victor Bello, George Cole, Oscar Hernandez and George Mirabal, is accused of bolstering her nearly $100,000 salary by serving on authorities that rarely met.

FULL COVERAGE: Bell corruption trial

 It was then-city manager Robert Rizzo, she testified, who informed her she could quit her real estate job because she would be getting a pay boost and would be working full time for the city.

Questioned Friday by her attorney Shepard Kopp, Jacobo testified that Rizzo never mentioned that a full-time salary required additional work on authorities.

“Did anyone tell you that you needed to devote a certain number of hours per week, per month or per year to work on those authorities?” Kopp asked, referring to the various boards on which council members served.

“No,” Jacobo said.

“Did anyone tell you that you needed to make sure a certain number of meetings of those authorities was conducted at a city council meeting?”

“No.”

“Did anyone tell you that each meeting of those authorities needed to last for a certain amount of time?”

“No.”

Jacobo testified that there was often work done on authorities outside of city council meetings.

She described handing out business cards to constituents that included her cellphone and home phone numbers. Residents would often call her at all hours, she testified, for help with city issues.

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Photo: Former Bell Councilwoman Teresa Jacobo in court last month. Credit: Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times

L.A. schools Supt. Deasy, 4 predecessors named in Miramonte lawsuit

Photo: LAUSD Superintendent John Deasy answers questions from the media following a news conference to discuss school security following the elementary school massacre in Connecticut December 17, 2012. Credit: Katie Falkerberg / Los Angeles Times
Los Angeles schools Supt. John Deasy and four predecessors were named in a lawsuit filed Tuesday that alleges they intentionally did not report complaints of suspected teacher abuse.
The lawsuit alleges that the superintendents created an environment in which administrators were advised to dismiss complaints of misconduct, shielded teachers from scrutiny and kept allegations from being reported to state authorities and law enforcement.

The former superintendents named in the suit are Ramon Cortines, Ruben Zacarias, Roy Romer and David L. Brewer. The lawsuit also names the district and the school board, as well as two former principals at Miramonte.

Attorney Brian Claypool filed the lawsuit on behalf of the 12 children and 19 parents he represents in another lawsuit in connection with lewd-conduct charges against a former teacher at Miramonte Elementary School.

Those claims accuse district officials of not doing enough to protect students from veteran instructor Mark Berndt, even after fielding complaints about inappropriate conduct at the school.

Berndt 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.

The latest lawsuit claims that the superintendents failed to have a clear and effective policy on reporting allegations of child abuse, intentionally failed to keep files on such complaints and intentionally did not report claims to state authorities or law enforcement.

The lawsuit cites a state audit released last November that found that Los Angeles school officials failed to promptly report nearly 150 cases of suspected misconduct to state authorities, including allegations of sexual contact with students.

Claypool said the top officials had a “calculated plan over 20 years to facilitate child abuse at the expense of the safety and welfare of the kids,” he said.

L.A. Unified's attorney stressed district efforts since Berndt's arrest.

“The school district is committed to providing a safe environment for students to learn and thrive," said general counsel David Holmquist. "Appropriately addressing misconduct continues to remain a top priority. That is why we have continually engaged in extensive internal and external reviews of our policies and practices.... We have and will continue to work to make our schools even safer.”

In a separate case, prosecutors last week charged a former teacher at George de la Torre Elementary School in Wilmington with molesting 12 students at the school. The teacher, Robert Pimentel, 57, has pleaded not guilty.

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Photo: LAUSD Supt. John Deasy answers questions from the media following a news conference to discuss school security after the elementary school massacre in Connecticut on Dec. 17. Credit: Katie Falkerberg / Los Angeles Times

Second parent says principal ignored concerns about accused teacher

Wilmington school.  A second parent says principal ignored concerns about accused teacher.
A second parent at a George de la Torre Elementary School in Wilmington has come forward to say that the former principal ignored allegations that a teacher was touching students inappropriately.

Maria Zacapa, whose child is now in the eighth grade, said her son told her four years ago that Robert Pimental had touched a girl in his fourth-grade class in a way that made Zacapa's son feel uncomfortable.

"We went to the principal and she didn't do anything to help us," Zacapa said in Spanish. The parent added that Principal Irene Hinojosa did not allow Zacapa to volunteer at the school after her complaint.

Prosecutors last week charged former De la Torre teacher Pimentel, 57, with molesting 12 students at the school and said there are additional victims. Pimentel has pleaded not guilty.

Zacapa’s account, given in an interview with The Times, corroborated that of another parent, who is still a volunteer at the school.

Last week, Magdalena Gonzalez said Hinojosa had been made aware of several questionable alleged incidents involving Pimentel about three years ago.

In Gonzalez’s account, a girl told her parent that Pimentel had playfully spanked students. Gonzalez also said she and other volunteers saw Pimentel pull on a student's bra strap during a fifth-grade graduation ceremony.

Gonzalez also alleged that Hinojosa was dismissive of their complaints and allowed Pimentel to have students in his classroom during recess and lunch despite their misgivings.

"We told her he was touching the girls," Gonzalez said in Spanish.

The L.A. Police Department began investigating Pimentel last March, when they learned of more recent allegations at the school.

Internal district records indicate that in 2002 and 2008 the principal was told of alleged inappropriate touching but failed to alert law enforcement authorities, as required by law, said L.A. schools Supt. John Deasy.

Deasy was preparing to fire the teacher and the principal when both resigned last March.

The police said last week that they will launch an investigation into whether the principal should face charges for failing to report alleged abuse. She could not be reached for comment.

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Photo: Television crews wait outside George de la Torre Jr. Elementary in the Wilmington area of Los Angeles last week. Robert Pimentel, a former fourth-grade teacher there, has been arrested on suspicion of sexually abusing students at the school. Credit: Damian Dovarganes / Associated Press

Latino kids disproportionately victimized by teachers, lawyer says

Martha Escutia
A former state senator called Monday for an investigation into what she said was a disproportionately large number of Latino students believed to have been victimized by teachers in the Los Angeles Unified School District.

Martha Escutia, now an attorney working for a law firm that represents families suing the district over teacher sexual misconduct, called for an independent investigation as she appeared at a news conference with a handful of parents in front of George de la Torre Elementary School in Wilmington.

Last week, a former de la Torre teacher, Robert Pimentel, 57, was arrested on suspicion of molesting 12 students at the school. Pimentel has pleaded not guilty.

“I just want accountability and transparency,” Escutia said. “Their silence is deafening,” she added, referring to district officials.

District officials defended their intentions and recent actions regarding misconduct but didn't directly address Escutia’s accusation that Latinos were, in effect, allowed to be targeted.

“Every child we serve is important, and we would never willfully place students in harm’s way,” said district general counsel David Holmquist. “We are consistently working to strengthen student safety, including implementing numerous policy changes and supporting meaningful statewide legislative reforms.”

The idea that Latinos have been more exposed to risk because of negligence or willful action has circulated for some time. It’s been documented that some teachers and principals have moved from school to school, causing problems in more than one place. Some advocates for children say such transfers would never have been tolerated in more affluent communities.

District officials say repeated transfers of employees with poor performance or questionable behavior are a thing of the past. They point to newly adopted policies, district participation in a state audit and the launch of an investigative commission led by retired California Supreme Court Justice Carlos Moreno.

The case attracting the most attention has been that of former Miramonte Elementary teacher Mark Berndt, 62, who faces 23 counts of lewd conduct for allegedly spoon-feeding semen to blindfolded students and taking bizarre photos of them. Berndt, who has pleaded not guilty, spent his entire teaching career at Miramonte.

Pimentel taught at schools in South Los Angeles, Carson and Wilmington. In Carson and Wilmington, he worked for principal Irene Hinojosa. According to L.A. schools Supt. John Deasy, Hinojosa received allegations that Pimentel had touched students inappropriately but she didn't report those allegations to police.

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Photo: Former state Sen. Martha Escutia at a news conference Monday in front of George De La Torre Jr. Elementary School in Wilmington. Photo: Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times

Principal faces probe over teacher held in abuse of 20 kids

A now-retired principal faces a criminal investigation after school officials said she twice failed to report accusations of sexual misconduct by a teacher who this week was arrested on suspicion of molesting 19 students at a Wilmington elementary school.

In 2002 and 2008, the principal was told that the teacher, Robert Pimentel, 57, inappropriately touched a student. But the principal failed to tell law enforcement authorities, as required by law, said L.A. schools Supt. John Deasy. The Los Angeles Police Department began investigating Pimentel in March, when they learned of more recent allegations at George de la Torre Elementary School.

LAPD Capt. Fabian Lizarraga said Thursday that detectives will launch an investigation into whether the principal, Irene Hinojosa, should face charges for failing to report alleged abuse. She could not be reached for comment Thursday.

It remains unclear why Hinojosa did not tell authorities about the accusations. The 2008 allegation also occurred at De la Torre. The 2002 allegation was made when Pimentel was a teacher and Hinojosa was the principal at Dominguez Elementary in Carson, Deasy said.

De la Torre school volunteer and parent Magdalena Gonzalez said Thursday that three years ago, a girl told her parents that Pimentel had playfully spanked students. Gonzalez also said she and other volunteers saw Pimentel pull on a student’s bra strap during a fifth-grade graduation ceremony.

Gonzalez alleged that Hinojosa was dismissive of their complaints and that she allowed Pimentel to have students in his classroom during recess and lunch despite their misgivings.

“We told her he was touching the girls,” Gonzalez said in Spanish.

School employees are required by law to report allegations of sexual misconduct to police. They also are supposed to report such issues to their supervisors, according to school district policies.

The revelations angered parents and once again placed the Los Angeles Unified School District under scrutiny over its handling of student abuse cases. A state audit released in November found that Los Angeles school officials failed to promptly report nearly 150 cases of suspected misconduct to state authorities, including allegations of sexual contact with students.

The audit resulted from the furor over the case of a Miramonte Elementary School teacher who was charged last year with allegedly spoonfeeding his semen to blindfolded students, feeding them tainted cookies and taking bizarre photos of them. The school had received previous complaints about the teacher, Mark Berndt, that had resulted in no discipline. Berndt has pleaded not guilty.

On Thursday, Deasy also took issue with the handling of the case by the state Commission on Teacher Credentialing. The commission failed to suspend or revoke the credential of either educator after the district informed the state of the allegations.

If Pimentel had applied to work as a substitute teacher at another school system, the state would have reported him in good standing as recently as Thursday.

A commission spokeswoman said Thursday that it cannot automatically suspend a teacher’s credential until charges are filed. But the commission does has the discretion to act sooner, said Erin Sullivan, who said she could not comment on specific cases.

Hinojosa’s case is “scheduled to be taken up by the commission” next Thursday at its regular meeting, she added.

Pimentel is charged with seven counts of lewd and lascivious acts with children younger than 14 and with eight felony counts of continuous sexual abuse involving eight victims. The charges cover September 2011 to March 2012, when Pimentel worked at De la Torre. He was charged with molesting 12 students, but police allege there are a total of 20 child victims.

He was taken into custody shortly after noon Wednesday and was being held on $2-million bail. Pimentel pleaded not guilty Thursday, and his attorney Richard Knickerbocker said his client is “absolutely innocent.”

Knickerbocker described the touching as appropriate, and said it falls within district policy.

In one instance, Pimentel hugged a girl and “gave her a kiss on the forehead,” Knickerbocker said. Pimentel never touched “any private parts.”

“Right now, we have accusations,” Knickerbocker said. “That's all.”

Prosecutor did not detail Pimentel’s alleged crimes in court papers.

But a law enforcment source close to the investigation said he allegedly touched children “multiple times over a period of time,”

The source, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the case was ongoing, said Pimentel is accused of inappropriately touching 9- and 10-year-old girls, sometimes under their clothing and in their genital areas.

The alleged incidents occurred on the school grounds, often in his classroom. The alleged victims are mainly his students but also girls who helped in his classroom. Some students have stepped forward as witnesses to the touching of other students, authorities said.

District officials said they learned in March — when the police investigation was launched — that Hinojosa failed to report the earlier allegations.

Deasy said he then moved quickly to fire both teacher and principal. The dismissal was scheduled for the next Board of Education meeting, in April 2012, but Pimentel and Hinojosa resigned March 27, Deasy said.

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Two previous allegations against teacher accused of abusing 20 kids

A former teacher arrested on sexual abuse allegations involving 20 children was previously alleged to have inappropriately touched students as early as 2002, but the accusations went unreported, a top LAUSD official said Thursday.

Robert Pimentel, 57, a former teacher at George de la Torre Elementary School in Wilmington, was arrested Wednesday on suspicion of committing lewd acts and sexually abusing 20 children and one adult, law enforcement authorities said.

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The current charges allege sexual abuse and lewd acts on children from September 2011 to March 2012. Authorities said the teacher is suspected of inappropriately touching children under and over their clothing.

L.A. schools Supt. John Deasy said Thursday that allegations against Pimentel also arose in 2002 and 2008, but the district has no record that the allegations went beyond the schools where Pimental worked at the time.

School employees are legally required to report allegations of sexual misconduct to police. They also are supposed to report such issues to their supervisors, according to Los Angeles Unified School District policies.

The teacher’s file “contained notations of suspected misconduct along the lines of what he was later charged with, which was inappropriate touching of a student,” Deasy said. “I don’t know the specific nature of the touching.”

In both previous instances, the principal in charge was Irene Hinojosa. The 2002 allegation occurred at Dominguez Elementary. The 2008 alleged incident was at George de la Torre Elementary.

After the school district learned last March of the allegations, Hinojosa and Pimentel were immediately removed from their positions.

“There was an allegation that was not properly reported,” Deasy said. “That was enough for me” to take action against the principal.

Hinojosa and Pimentel resigned on March 27 before the proceedings to fire them could be completed, Deasy said.

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LAUSD to pay $6.9 million in abuse case; Miramonte could be costly

Photos: Miramonte sex-abuse investigation

As the Los Angeles Unified School District tries to settle claims filed in connection with a teacher who allegedly molested children at Miramonte Elementary School, a jury awarded $6.9 million to another district student in a separate sexual abuse case.

The size of verdict -- among the largest ever awarded in a district molestation case – suggests L.A. Unified could end up paying a large amount of money to wrap up the close to 200 pending legal claims related to the Miramonte teacher.

Lawyers for L.A. Unified recently announced the district intends to settle the Miramonte claims by the end of January. 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.

FULL COVERAGE: Teacher sex-abuse investigations

Berndt, who has been charged with 23 counts of lewd conduct, is 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.

Tuesday's judgment centered on whether the district bore responsibility for acts committed by Forrest Stobbe, who molested a fifth-grade student at Queen Anne Place Elementary School over several months. In September 2011, Stobbe pleaded no contest to two counts of a lewd act on a child and to continuous sexual abuse of a child younger than 14. He is currently serving a 16-year prison sentence.

Attorneys for the school system insisted that district staff could not have known what Stobbe was doing. But the plaintiffs argued there were abundant warning signs, including when a girl in Stobbe's class said the teacher had stroked her hair and touched her buttocks.

"Some of the same issues in the Miramonte case are highlighted here," said attorney Don Beck, who represented the student Stobbe molested, "the same lack of monitoring teachers, the same lack of supervision that allowed these events to happen."

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Photo: Attorneys John Manly and Martha Escutia announce new lawsuits related to alleged abuse at Miramonte Elementary School. At right is a poster of teacher Mark Berndt, who has been charged with 23 counts of lewd conduct. Credit: Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times

LAUSD must pay $6.9 million in teacher molestation case

A jury awarded $6.9 million Tuesday to a fifth-grader molested by a teacher in a case that could presage the outcome of more than 100 pending molestation and lewd conduct claims against the Los Angeles Unified School District.

The damages may be the largest ever awarded to a single victim in a molestation or lewd conduct case involving the nation’s second-largest school system.

The litigation arose from the criminal acts of Forrest Stobbe, a veteran teacher at Queen Anne Elementary School in the Mid-Wilshire district. In September 2011, Stobbe pleaded no contest to two counts of a lewd act on a child and to continuous sexual abuse of a child younger than 14.

Stobbe molested the 10-year-old while the boy was his student, beginning in October 2008 and running through the following July, when he was arrested.

In the civil litigation the defendant was L.A. Unified and the case turned on how much responsibility the school system bore for what happened. Stobbe had a clean record, but there were previous complaints and incidents that allegedly foreshadowed the later molestation.

The principal and other employees had warnings that something was amiss and could have taken action that would have prevented or limited the abuse, said attorneys for the family.

Attorneys for the school system painted a different picture. They did not question that the young victim suffered a horrible ordeal. But they insisted that the district was not to blame because there was no credible evidence, known to the district, that Stobbe posed a threat to children. Moreover, the district argued, its staff had acted in a professional and appropriate manner.

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