Southern California -- this just in

Category: Mark Berndt

Miramonte lewd conduct lawsuits can proceed

An L.A. County Superior Court judge on Thursday lifted a stay on lawsuits arising from alleged lewd conduct at Miramonte Elementary School.

The order, by Judge Malcolm Mackey, allows attorneys representing students and parents to proceed formally with their lawsuits. Up until Thursday, some cases had been on hold during attempts to reach an early, negotiated resolution.

But talks have been fruitless, attorney Luis Carrillo argued in papers submitted to the court. He said the Los Angeles Unified School District has been slow to make offers and that they're unrealistically low.

In lifting the stay, Mackey also directed all parties to continue mediation.

Former Miramonte teacher Mark 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 his 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 at the school, which is located in Florence-Firestone.

So far, 126 students and 63 parents have filed claims for damages against L.A. Unified. There are also six lawsuits on behalf of 37 students and one involving 11 parents, according to attorneys and district officials.

“We’re still pursuing an early resolution,” said Sean Rossall, a spokesman for L.A. Unified. “We feel it’s in the best interests of the children and the families. We want to avoid going through a lengthy litigation process.”


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New litigation related to alleged lewd conduct at Miramonte

PHOTOS: Parent uproar over sex-abuse claims

Attorneys filed four more lawsuits this week in connection with lewd-conduct charges against a former teacher at Miramonte Elementary School.

The litigation, filed Monday by the firm Manly & Stewart, accuses the Los Angeles Unified School District of negligence, fraud, sexual harassment, gender violence and infliction of emotional distress for failing to protect students from veteran instructor Mark Berndt.

Berndt, 61, taught one of the students for two years and supervised the others after school, according to the lawsuits. In these cases and others, he’s accused of spoon-feeding his semen to blind-folded 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.

PHOTOS: Parent uproar over sex-abuse claims

Authorities began investigating Berndt after a drugstore clerk gave police bizarre photos of students taking part in these acts.

Attorney John Manly said Tuesday that he sued on behalf of four students because “over 100 children allege they were victimized by this man, and there’s no credible explanation of how this happened."

"The only people who have investigated the school district is the school district,” he added.

Manly accused L.A. Unified of trying to withhold information that is embarrassing or that could increase its liability. The attorney scheduled a Wednesday morning news conference to discuss the litigation.

FULL COVERAGE: Teacher sex-abuse investigations

District officials have defended their response. They said they have provided counseling and help for affected families, cooperated fully with law enforcement and acted quickly and comprehensively to address shortcomings in their response to allegations. The district also replaced the entire staff of the school, located in Florence-Firestone, for the second half of the 2011-12 school year.

Berndt was arrested in January but removed from the school a year earlier.

Last week, officials said that 126 students and 63 parents have filed Miramonte-related claims for damages against L.A. Unified. There also are two other lawsuits on behalf of 33 students and one on behalf of 11 parents.

Berndt faces 23 counts of lewd conduct and is being held in lieu of $23-million bail. He has pleaded not guilty.


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Photo: Students are escorted out of Miramonte Elementary School in January, a day after teacher Mark Berndt was arrested on charges of lewd conduct with children. Credit: Damian Dovarganes / Associated Press

Bill to speed up teacher dismissals is revived

A state senator has reintroduced legislation intended to speed the dismissal of teachers for gross misconduct.

Sen. Alex Padilla (D-Pacoima) acted in the wake of a state audit concluding that current laws added excessive cost and time to the firing process.

“The state auditor confirms that the dismissal process established in state law is inconsistent, too lengthy, too costly and delays the timely resolution of child-abuse cases,” Padilla said in a statement. “I believe strongly that when there are allegations of abuse, timely resolution is important to all parties, particularly children and their parents.”

The new legislation, SB 10, will closely resemble an unsuccessful bill advanced last year by Padilla, said his spokesman John D. Mann on Monday. The new bill’s text was not yet posted Monday afternoon, but the earlier bill shifted firing authority from an independent state panel to the school district in which a teacher is employed. Teachers still could get an outside review of their cases before an administrative law judge, but the judge’s decision would not be binding.

The bill defined gross misconduct as sex, drug and child abuse offenses.

Last year, Padilla’s bill was opposed by labor groups including the California Teachers Assn. and United Teachers Los Angeles. The unions asserted that the bill would have undermined appropriate due-process rights for teachers.

The state audit, released last week, also called for the Legislature to establish a tracking system for non-teaching employees who work in schools. Without it, non-teachers fired for misconduct could successfully apply to other school systems for jobs, auditors noted.

The state already maintains a system for verifying that a teacher is in good standing, but until recently, L.A. Unified failed to file reports on teachers in a timely manner.

Both the audit and the legislation came in the wake of the arrest of a veteran Miramonte Elementary School teacher for lewd conduct earlier this year.


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Audit faults LAUSD for not reporting charges of sexual misconduct

California auditors have concluded that Los Angeles school officials have been slow to act on some allegations of employee sexual misconduct and often failed to notify the state agency that oversees the credentials of teachers -- a notification required by law.

The review, released Thursday, was conducted by the California state auditor at the behest of the  Legislature’s audit committee. It was commissioned in response to fallout from the arrest of a veteran Miramonte Elementary School teacher on 23 counts of lewd conduct.

Audit faults LAUSD for not reporting misconduct allegations

Authorities suspect Mark Berndt, 61,  of feeding cookies tainted with his semen to students, among other wrongdoing. Previous alleged questionable behavior by Berndt had not resulted in any discipline prior to his arrest.

DOCUMENT: Read the full LAUSD audit

Berndt, who is being held in lieu of $23 million bail, has pleaded not guilty.

L.A. Unified did not "properly notify" the state’s Commission on Teacher Credentialing "when required to do so, such as when an employee with a certificate to teach is dismissed while an allegation of misconduct is pending," the auditors wrote. The review “found that the district failed to report as required at least 144 cases — including cases involving employee misconduct against students — submitted a year or more late when the district finally did report them.”

Of these cases, “31 were more than three years late when they were reported to the commission. As a result of the delays in reporting these cases, the commission was not able to determine promptly whether it was appropriate to revoke the teachers’ certificates and thus prevent the individuals from working in other school districts,” auditors asserted.

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Post-Miramonte, attorney calls for more aggressive measures

An attorney representing two dozen students urged school officials Monday to take more aggressive action in response to alleged lewd conduct at Miramonte Elementary School.

The Los Angeles Unified School District should agree to an independent monitor over safety issues, said Luis A. Carrillo in a news conference at his South Pasadena office. The monitor’s tasks would include setting up a safety hotline available for every school that allowed for anonymous reports. Other duties would include submitting quarterly reports. The monitor also would be responsible for directing staff training on child safety issues, outreach to parents and a review of best practices elsewhere.

L.A. Unified reacted by listing measures it has taken since the January arrest of former instructor Mark Berndt on 23 counts of lewd conduct. Berndt has pleaded not guilty.

The school system has provided ongoing counseling to anyone affected at Miramonte or in the surrounding Florence-Firestone community, cooperated with investigators, pursued an internal review, opened its records to a state audit, reviewed 40 years of employee files and established an investigative commission.

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Former Miramonte student allegedly beaten at new school

A former Miramonte Elementary School student, who is among a group of children suing over alleged teacher sexual misconduct, has transferred from one middle school to another after she was allegedly beaten by other students. The incident apparently was unrelated to what happened at Miramonte.

An attorney representing the family alleges that the principal and staff at Drew Middle School in Florence-Firestone were slow to respond and hostile on one occasion after the student’s mother reported, on the first day of school, that her daughter had received a text-message threat. A week later, the girl was beaten by three girls, an episode followed by a threatening Facebook posting, said attorney Luis A. Carrillo.

The girl is among 24 the attorney represents in connection with the arrest of former Miramonte teacher Mark Berndt on 23 counts of lewd conduct. Additional alleged victims are represented by other attorneys. Berndt has pleaded not guilty. Some parents allege that the district failed to respond properly to concerns raised by parents long before Berndt’s arrest.

A district official said a transfer was in process but that he had no information on whether the allegations were proved or whether any student was disciplined. Carrillo said he learned of the transfer approval Thursday.

If a parent believes a child to be unsafe or if a student feels threatened, a transfer can be granted on that basis, said Greg McNair, an attorney for the Los Angeles Unified School District. He added that alleged victims are not automatically transferred following disputes with other students because that could be akin to punishing the victim. He also said that it can be difficult for the district to verify and evaluate such things as text-message threats.


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Ex-LAUSD teacher pleads no contest to molestation of 13 students

Paul ChapelA former Telfair Elementary teacher pleaded no contest Monday to molesting 13 former students and faces 25 years to life in prison, the Los Angeles County district attorney's office said.

As his preliminary hearing was slated to begin, Paul Chapel, 51, pleaded no contest to 13 counts of a lewd act on a child before San Fernando Superior Court Judge Lloyd Nash.

The molestations involved children as young as 8 between September 2006 and April 2011. He was charged last year with molesting four students but that did not become public until early this year. He was subsequently charged with molesting nine additional former students.

Chapel had continued to work in the L.A. Unified School District despite several red flags in his history. He was tried but not convicted in a 1997 alleged molestation and had previously left a private school after allegedly making inappropriate remarks during a sex education class.

Chapel was most recently a third-grade teacher at Telfair in Pacoima, but parents were not informed of his alleged conduct with students who were either in his class or in nearby classrooms until this year, several months after his arrest. 

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Miramonte teachers return to campus rocked by abuse scandal

Arriving students and their parents check out the class lists posted outside Miramonte Elementary on the first day of school

School opened Tuesday at Miramonte Elementary with the normal bustle and excitement -- as well as four TV news vans, two school police officers and 16 psychiatric social workers.

But the most notable event was the first day back teaching for faculty members abruptly removed from the school in February, following the arrests of a current and a former teacher charged with lewd conduct against students.

In what he called a confidence-building measure, Los Angeles schools Supt. John Deasy had ordered the entire staff to report to a not-yet-opened campus while Miramonte finished the school year with replacement teachers.

Now 45 of the original teachers, cleared of any wrongdoing, are back. Others moved to different campuses because Miramonte converted this year from a year-round to a traditional schedule, which reduced the enrollment at the campus located in Florence-Firestone.

Continue reading »

Miramonte parents file suit related to children's alleged abuse

Fourteen mothers of Miramonte Elementary students alleged in a lawsuit filed Tuesday that they, too, are victims of a teacher who has been charged with 23 counts of lewd conduct against students.

The suit, filed in Los Angeles Superior Court, is a follow-up to litigation filed in May on behalf of 20 children of these parents. Much like the students, the mothers “have suffered emotional distress, including shock, nervousness, anxiety, worry, humiliation and embarrassment,” according to the complaint.

“The moms want justice,” said attorney Luis Carrillo. “They want counseling and therapy for their kids. And because of the nature of the emotional injury of the moms, they also have a need for therapy and counseling due to their own emotional distress.”

PHOTOS: Sex abuse scandal at Miramonte Elementary

Former teacher Mark Berndt, 61, has pleaded not guilty to the charges. Authorities suspect him of feeding cookies tainted with his semen to students, spoonfeeding semen to them and putting roaches on their faces, sometimes when they were blind-folded as part of what Berndt allegedly described as a game. An investigation began when a drugstore clerk alerted authorities to bizarre photos of children that Berndt allegedly had taken to be developed.

Berndt was arrested Jan. 30 after a lengthy investigation.

The litigation is on behalf of families whose children Berndt taught or worked with after school from 2002 through 2011. Named as defendants in the suit are former Miramonte principals Marc Sandoval and Richard Lopez and the Los Angeles Unified School District.

Continue reading »

Miramonte teachers speak at rally

Miramonte teachers broke their silence at Thursday's rally
More than 200 parents, students and former Miramonte teachers gathered in South Los Angeles on Thursday to call for the immediate reinstatement of the school’s staff, which was removed in its entirety from the campus in early February, a week after the arrest of former teacher Mark Berndt on 23 counts of lewd conduct.

Thursday’s rally marked the first time that the teachers spoke publicly.

"We just really want to go back to our students," said one teacher in a interview. Like many others, she declined to be identified.

"We never got to say goodbye," she said. "We’re teachers, and we want to teach our kids. It’s been hard, and we’re trying to heal."

Said another teacher: “To our students, we love you and miss you.”

Since leaving Miramonte, southeast of downtown, the teachers have reported to work at nearby Augustus Hawkins High School, a new campus that has not opened. The district has not allowed access to teachers during work hours, and teachers -- following the advice of their union -- declined to be interviewed at other times.

But Thursday, teachers were ready to break their silence. Most have received word that they are cleared to return to a campus with students as of July 1.

"For so many of us, we are defined by our profession," one teacher said. "I have a good reputation, and I always was judged on my own merit. Because of the actions of one individual, it seems like all of that has been diminished.

"I’m used to teaching children," she said. "That was my calling and that’s what I want to do."

A couple of teachers said that they have used their time at Hawkins to improve their craft and that the school district has provided valuable training. They also conceded that sometimes it was hard to focus with so many worries about their future.

Continue reading »

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