By Stephen Ceasar, LA Times | http://lat.ms/1nVzDZs
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)
Online: May 2, 2014, 2:50 p.m./Print: May 4, 2014 :: Attorneys representing students and their families in litigation over alleged sexual misconduct at Miramonte Elementary School called Friday for a federal investigation into the Los Angeles school district's destruction of reports containing abuse claims.
The lawyers' remarks came after a pre-trial hearing this week in which attorneys learned about the destroyed reports. The first set of student and parent plaintiffs who allege they were harmed by former teacher Mark Berndt is scheduled to go to trial in July.
Berndt pleaded no contest last November to 23 counts of lewd conduct and received a 25-year prison sentence.
Sixty former students and about 40 parents are seeking damages in civil cases against the Los Angeles Unified School District. The litigation prompted the disclosure that the school system in 2008 destroyed about 2,000 reports containing abuse allegations.
Plaintiffs' attorneys said the U.S. Department of Justice should investigate the district for criminal wrongdoing.
Speaking at a press conference in front of L.A. Unified's downtown headquarters Friday, attorney Brian Claypool, who represents plaintiffs, said the school district was actively hiding evidence by getting rid of the reports.
“We are going to make sure there are repercussions,” Claypool said. “This matter is bigger than a civil lawsuit, it’s a criminal matter.”
The Department of Justice did not respond to a request for comment.
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 the forms are then submitted confidentially to law enforcement or the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services. However, from the late 1980s through 2008, district officials requested that employees also provide a copy to the district, said L.A. Unified spokesman Sean Rossall.
In 2008, district officials determined that state law prohibited them from keeping these documents due to privacy rules. The district destroyed them after checking with county officials, Rossall said.
"When the school district reviewed the law regulating possession and disclosure of these records, it realized that it had erred by collecting these highly confidential law enforcement documents and made sure to bring its policies in line with statute. It destroyed this duplicate information," Rossall said in a statement Friday.
At a pre-trial hearing this week, previously undisclosed accusations against Berndt were revealed. The allegations included claims of more widespread abuse, amounting to more than 100 possible victims, including some children who said Berndt molested them, according to court documents.
The allegations, based on a two-year investigation by the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, are included in a 512-page confidential report. The report was summarized by Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge John Shepard Wiley in a ruling.