LAUSD wants to settle 189 legal claims over former Miramonte teacher Mark Berndt's alleged lewd acts
By Christina Hoag, Associated Press Writer/LA Daily News | http://bit.ly/Z1oqKB
In this Jan. 31, 2012 file photo, students are escorted to a waiting bus as they leave Miramonte Elementary school in Los Angeles after classes, a day after teacher Mark Berndt was arrested on charges of lewd conduct with children. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes, File)
12/06/2012 | LOS ANGELES - The Los Angeles Unified School District hopes to settle 189 legal actions by late January in a case involving a former elementary teacher accused of lewd acts with students that were so shocking, they prompted the district to remove all employees at the school while it did a thorough investigation.
The number of claimants stemming from the case is unprecedented in the nation's second-largest school district, where lawsuits allege officials did nothing to protect children from the Miramonte Elementary School teacher accused of feeding students semen-laced cookies in what he called "tasting games."
Former California Supreme Court Justice Cruz Reynoso is overseeing the mediation process that involves 16 law firms representing 126 students and 63 parents and guardians, said the district's general counsel, David Holmquist.
Two lawyers representing 26 of the 189 students and parents announced Wednesday they were not participating in the mediation and were instead filing separate lawsuits. Lawyers Martha Escutia and John Manly filed four lawsuits this week, bringing the total number of suits against the district in the case to eight. They said they plan to file 22 more as soon as they can.
Holmquist said the district was taken aback by the lawyers' action but said he still anticipated they would participate in the settlement, which could come within weeks. March is the outside deadline for the settlement to be reached, he said.
The district is focused on reaching an agreement "that makes sense, protects the students and restores trust," Holmquist said.
Gregory McNair, chief business and compliance counsel, said the district doesn't want children traumatized by having them testify in court. "The litigation process can be a brutal process," he said.
Reynoso, currently a law professor emeritus at University of California, Davis, is being assisted in the case by two other retired judges. He is interviewing numerous families as part of the claim evaluation process, Holmquist said.
Settlement funds would be partially covered by an insurance policy and by the district's liability fund, Holmquist noted.
The litigation stems from the January arrest of former Miramonte teacher Mark Berndt, who has pleaded not guilty to 23 counts of lewdness for allegedly feeding students semen-laced cookies over five years.
After his arrest, investigators found several hundred photos of children participating in Berndt's "tasting games," which involved blindfolding children with cockroaches on their faces, biting into cookies laced with a milky-white substance and being spoon-fed a similar liquid. Investigators said the substance appeared to be Berndt's semen.
In an unprecedented move, the district removed all employees at the school while it investigated how Berndt's alleged actions went undetected for so long. The employees were allowed to return to the school, or others, this semester.
The district has assigned 16 psychiatric social workers to Miramonte and surrounding schools, where former students may be located, and has several support programs for parents, said Pia Escudero, director of school mental health and crisis counseling. Attendance at the school is 97 percent.
Lawyers Escutia and Manly said Wednesday they opted out of the mediation talks because the district had stonewalled them on handing over documents about other alleged cases of teacher sexual misconduct.
Holmquist and McNair denied that they held back any documents.
Retired LAUSD chief seeks dismissal of sexual-harassment lawsuit against him
By Daily News Wire Services
Former Los Angeles Unified Superintendent Ray Cortines is seeking dismissal of the sexual-harassment suit against him. (2010 file photo by Michael Owen Baker/staff photographer)
12/06/2012 12:14:36 PM PST Updated: 12/06/2012 03:49:01 PM PST :: Lawyers for retired LAUSD Superintendent Ramon Cortines want a judge to dismiss a lawsuit alleging the educator made unwanted sexual advances to a mid-level employee, saying the male plaintiff failed to file an appropriate claim with the district before going to court.
Scot Graham brought a claim June 8, alleging that LAUSD had invaded his privacy and defamed him by disclosing his identity during a press conference to announce the settlement of sexual-harassment allegations.
In court documents filed Nov. 30, attorneys for Cortines say Graham did not file a separate claim concerning the alleged sexual acts Cortines committed while serving as superintendent. That lapse should invalidate the lawsuit Graham filed July 23 against Cortines, documents say.
<< Scot Graham, photographed at his West Hollywood home, is the LAUSD employee who has filed a sexual-harassment lawsuit against retired Superintendent Ramon Cortines. (John McCoy/Staff Photographer)
Graham's attorney, Arnold Peter, released a statement Thursday saying LAUSD officials had dissuaded Graham from pursuing a claim when the alleged incidents first occurred.
"The district's decision to litigate this issue does not take us by surprise and we expect to defeat the district's procedural defenses," he said.
A hearing on the dismissal motion is scheduled Feb. 13 before Judge William Fahey.
Graham alleges that Cortines hired him in 2000 as director of real estate, and propositioned him shortly after he started working for the district. Graham also claims Cortines made unwanted sexual advances during a 2010 trip to the former superintendent's ranch in rural Tulare County.
The suit was filed two months after the district announced during a news conference that the Board of Education had agreed to pay Graham $200,000 and provide him with lifetime health benefits to settle his sexual harassment claims.
That settlement unraveled shortly after the announcement, with Graham's attorneys saying he had never agreed to be publicly identified.
Cortines issued a statement saying that his interactions with Graham were consensual - a claim that Graham disputes.
The lawsuit does not name the LAUSD.
Cortines retired from the district in April 2011.