Allegations in Miramonte molestation case grow
by Howard Blume | LA Times | http://lat.ms/1pXSJAj
Former Miramonte Elementary School teacher Mark Berndt, right, appears in L.A. County Superior Court with attorney Manny Medrano last year. (Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times / November 15, 2013)
May 1, 2014, 6:20 p.m. :: Previously undisclosed accusations against former Miramonte Elementary School teacher Mark Berndt reveal a more widespread pattern of alleged abuse, with more than 100 possible victims, including some children who said Berndt molested them, according to court documents.
The new allegations about Berndt are included in a 512-page report based on a two-year inquiry by the L.A. County Sheriff's Department. The report is confidential, but was summarized by Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge John Shepard Wiley in a ruling during a pre-trial hearing this week.
These are the first public allegations that the veteran elementary teacher sexually abused students. Wiley indicated that Berndt touched them in a sexual manner and exposed himself. According to the sheriff's report, he also urged students to touch him, Wiley said.
Berndt's attorney Manny Medrano said his client is not guilty of the broader abuse alleged in the sheriff's investigation.
The Miramonte scandal was the biggest child abuse case in the history of L.A. Unified. Following Berndt's arrest on lewd conduct charges in 2012, Supt. John Deasy closed the campus for two days and reopened it with an entirely new faculty and staff. The district already has paid about $30 million in settlements to 63 children and their families along with millions in legal fees and other costs.
Berndt, 63, was accused of spoon-feeding his semen to blind-folded students as part of what he is said to have called a tasting game. The evidence included photos of students apparently engaged in these acts. He pleaded no contest in November to 23 counts of lewd conduct and received a sentence of 25 years. Berndt's plea aborted a criminal trial.
Deputy Dist. Atty. Alison Meyers, who handled the Berndt case, said prosecutors were satisfied with achieving a 25-year prison term, which she said virtually is a life sentence. Although additional allegations emerged after the initial charges, prosecutors focused instead on plea bargain negotiations.
Still, 60 former students and about 40 parents are seeking damages in civil cases; the first trial is scheduled for July.
Plaintiffs' lawyers have been battling L.A. Unified and the Sheriff's Department for access to the law-enforcement inquiry and other materials. The litigation prompted another disclosure this week: The school system in 2008 destroyed about 2,000 reports containing abuse allegations.
The documents are copies of the Suspected Child Abuse Report, which describe alleged incidents in which a child may have been harmed. District employees are required to report suspected abuse, and these forms are submitted confidentially to the police or the L.A. County Department of Children and Family Services. From the late 1980s through 2008, employees were asked to provide copies to the district as well, said L.A. Unified spokesman Sean Rossall.
But in 2008, officials determined that state law banned them from possessing these forms because of privacy rules; they ordered them destroyed, Rossall said. He added that essential information should have been fully duplicated within internal district reports.
Plaintiffs' attorneys challenged this explanation.
"This revelation deserves a serious inquiry by an outside agency to get to the facts of how this happened and why the destruction was kept a secret," said attorney John Manly, who represents some of the alleged victims. "LAUSD's unapologetic and transparently ridiculous justification for the shredding is shocking."
In the months after Berndt's arrest, Deasy decried poor past recordkeeping on the part of L.A. Unified and vowed changes. These efforts included requiring administrators to scour old files and assemble the information into a central database. He said no internal reports could be found regarding Berndt.
Police had investigated Berndt in the past but never filed charges.
In the civil case, L.A. Unified is liable for damages if it could have or should have known about abuse.
The reports were collected by the district's Child Abuse Prevention Office, which shut down in 2002 when its director retired. The purpose of that office was staff awareness training, not investigation, Rossall said. The office used the reports to compile data for the county. The reports covered all forms of mistreatment, not just sexual misconduct. On the Sheriff's Department documents, Wiley ruled that he would hand over substantial portions to attorneys suing L.A. Unified. The Sheriff's Department indicated that it would not challenge the release of the reports.
Such investigations typically are confidential to protect children and witnesses. The ruling allows children and families not involved in the lawsuits to request that their identities remain confidential. Wiley said he would honor their wishes because "the main purpose of this ruling is to protect children... They, and their parents, have a constitutional privacy right to decide whether to involve themselves in this case," he wrote.
The judge reached a different conclusion regarding adult witnesses outside of affected families. Their names will be provided to attorneys. Wiley's summary included the most specific details released about the Berndt investigation.
"Berndt touched students in many ways, ranging from highly assaulting" their genitals and breasts "to other contacts with less obviously abusive implications," Wiley wrote in the summary of the sheriff's findings. "Berndt exposed his genitalia to students and others, by sitting in short shorts without underwear and spreading his legs in front of students."
Wiley said the sheriff's investigation found that Berndt induced children to touch his genitalia in addition to his arms and legs.
Berndt took hundreds of photos of children, 600 of which became evidence against him in the criminal case. These pictures include Berndt allegedly feeding his semen to students on cookies and from spoons. In other photos, he had placed tape or his hand over children's eyes. And in some, he put tape over their mouths. Some showed children with cockroaches on their faces.
"There is a suggestion in the police report that Berndt watched videos of bondage of women, and that his taping of children was for Berndt some version of sexualized bondage," the judge wrote.
Medrano, Berndt's attorney, dismissed the significance of the volume of allegations.
"There were so many people who came forward to be alleged victims and they were just trying to latch onto a financial gravy train," Medrano said. "There was no physical violation of any child."
He added that prosecutors alleged there were 23 victims, therefore any additional claims lack credibility.
Meyers, the prosecutor, however, disagreed. She said those victims were included in initial charges, but that there could be additional, credible cases.
"It's possible that we could have added more charges," she said.
| Karen Foshay with Paul Glickman | |
José Martinez/OnCentral: Miramonte Elementary School.
May 1st, 2014, 2:36pm | Update 5:15 p.m.: The court arguments :: L.A. Unified lawyer Sean Andrade said the District got the photos after Mark Berndt’s arrest in January 2012. He said some came from law enforcement, and that some were acquired during the District’s mediation with lawyers representing children in previous cases that were eventually settled out of court.
Andrade said the District did not disclose or hand over those pictures because of "mediation privilege." Plaintiff’s lawyers challenged that contention. Then another L.A. Unified lawyer, Tom Delaney, offered to give the photos to Judge Wiley.
Wiley declined to make a decision on the matter. He ordered both sides’ attorneys to meet to try to resolve the dispute.
Several plaintiff’s attorneys expressed anger that they are only learning of this new set of photographs now.
"At the very beginning of the litigation [roughly two years ago] we started asking for any photographic evidence they have of the abuse, or of children being abused, or children in Mr. Berndt’s class," plaintiff’s lawyer Vince Finaldi told KPCC, adding that in response to these "dozens and dozens of requests for photos," L.A. Unified’s response was always, "'we don’t have any photographs, not a single photograph.'
"The LAUSD has stifled our efforts to obtain critical information and evidence necessary to prepare the case for trial," said Finaldi, arguing that the photos were withheld because "the information is bad, and that’s why they don’t want us to have it."
The photographs could help identify children "who we know were abused and that we don’t have photos for," said Finaldi. They could also help identify "where these kids were being abused, or potentially during which school year they were being abused," he added.
L.A. Unified spokesman Sean Rossall issued a statement regarding Thursday's court hearing: "We appreciate the court's time and attention to ensuring that the privacy of children involved is protected, while ensuring an appropriate exchange of information between all parties."
Separately, Judge Wiley issued a ruling regarding lawyers’ access to some of the 600 photographs in the Sheriff’s report on its investigation into Berndt. Up until now, the attorneys have only been allowed to see 20 or 30 of those pictures, according to plaintiff’s lawyer John Manly. On Thursday Wiley ordered that an additional batch be made available to the attorneys.
The L.A. Unified School District has admitted that it has additional photos related to former Miramonte Elementary School teacher and convicted sex offender Mark Berndt and that, until now, it had kept that information from the judge hearing a civil lawsuit against the district and plaintiff’s attorneys in the case.
According to court documents, there are 600 photos in a Sheriff's investigative report on Berndt. In a court hearing on Wednesday regarding the Sheriff’s report, L.A. Unified attorney Sean Andrade revealed that the district has another set of photos related to the case.
"What photos?" asked a surprised plaintiff’s attorney John Manly.
Andrade offered to supply the photos to the court. He did not say how many there are, or what is in them.
Judge John Wiley Jr. ordered a halt to the conversation, saying the parties could discuss it in court Thursday.
That hearing is underway now.
On Wednesday, Judge Wiley revealed previously undisclosed allegations that Berndt had gone beyond feeding semen-laced cookies to his students and taking pictures of them with tape over their eyes and mouths.
In a summary of the Sheriff's report, Wiley noted that the investigation found that Berndt had touched girls' genitalia, induced students to touch his genitals, and exposed himself to students.
Also on Wednesday, KPCC reported that L.A. Unified had destroyed roughly 20 years' worth of records containing allegations of sexual abuse in public schools.
This story will be updated.
Attorney Alleges Sex Crimes Cover Up By LAUSD In Miramonte Case
CBS Los Angeles | http://cbsloc.al/1hkWuX7
May 2, 2014 11:17 AM :: LOS ANGELES (CBSLA.com) — The L.A. Unified School District Friday was accused of covering up child abuse reports dating back to 1988.
Brian Claypool, an attorney representing plaintiffs in the civil case against former Miramonte Elementary School teacher Mark Berndt, has accused the district of destroying records that detail a widespread patter of alleged abuse.
“This is a public safety issue. The entire Los Angeles community should be outraged at the fact the LAUSD has intentially destroyed over 20 years of child records,” he said.
The allegations, which the district has admitted to, stem from a 512-page confidential report based on a two-year investigation by the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department.
The original abuse reports, which were destroyed in 2008, allege Berndt abused potentially more than 100 victims, including some children who said he molested them.
Berndt, who reportedly took photos of blindfolded and gagged students with a roach on their faces or semen-tainted spoons or cookies held to their mouths, pleaded no contest to nearly two dozen counts last November .
The 63-year-old was sentenced to 25 years in prison.
“Their only feeble excuse is that ‘We had to protect the privacy of the person who filed the child abuse report.’ But again, that’s not the law,” Claypool said.
“When the school district reviewed the law regulating the possession and disclosure of these records, it realized it had errored by collecting highly confidential law enforcement documents and made sure to bring its policies in line with the statute,” Sean Rossall, an LAUSD Council spokesperson said.
Rossall added that the district acted within state law when the records were destroyed.
The first of several civil cases filed by former students and parents will go to trial in early July.
Claypool says he plans to call for a federal investigation into the LAUSD.