Saturday, September 27, 2014

BEFORE+BEYOND MIRAMONTE: LAUSD sets new records at bad record keeping …and at keeping their story straight

L.A. Unified alerted to possible sexual misconduct by Berndt in 1983

Newly released documents show that students, parents and teachers were alarmed by his conduct for years

By Victoria Kim, Howard Blume  - LA Times

Mark Berndt, Manny Medrano

Mark Berndt, right, with attorney Manny Medrano, was sentenced to 25 years in prison for lewd conduct with students. Newly disclosed records in civil suits reveal multiple prior complaints about his behavior. (Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)

9-26-2014 | 19:14:48  ::  In 1983, a South Los Angeles elementary school principal received a call about one of his teachers, a 32-year-old just a few years on the job. On a student field trip to a museum, Mark Berndt had dropped his pants, a parent complained.

The principal called the parent back and jotted notes about the incident in a memo. Berndt remained at the school.

"Thanks again for the support you gave me," Berndt said in a handwritten note to the principal shortly after the complaint. "I did learn at least one thing for sure! Not to take students to the museum while wearing baggy shorts!"

Three decades later, Berndt would become the focus of one of the largest sexual misconduct scandals in the history of the Los Angeles Unified School District. Documents recently made public in civil lawsuits brought by students and their parents show the district had multiple prior complaints about Berndt over his 32-year career at Miramonte Elementary School.

The May 1983 memo by the principal and Berndt's response show that a supervisor was alerted to possible sexual misconduct by Berndt a decade earlier than the previously disclosed allegations. Other newly released documents show that students, parents and other teachers were alarmed by Berndt's conduct over the decades he spent working at Miramonte.

His frequent hugging of students and penchant for shorts — some tight and revealing, others overly baggy — was well-known at the school, several witnesses said.

Berndt taught at Miramonte from 1979 to 2011, when investigators began to look into his conduct based on photos turned in to police. He was later accused of spoon-feeding his semen to blindfolded students as part of what he called a "tasting game." Now 63, he pleaded no contest last year to 23 counts of lewd conduct and was sentenced to 25 years in prison.

Sworn testimony from students in the new documents details the harm left in his wake. One seventh-grader testified earlier this year that she is now wary of her teachers, has trouble trusting others and no longer goes anywhere near the boys in her school.

"Has it made you feel safer knowing that ... he's in prison?"

"No," she replied. "Anybody else could do it."

Related: LAUSD quietly disbands Miramonte child-abuse investigative panel

^Related: LAUSD quietly disbands Miramonte child-abuse investigative panel

The documents were filed by attorneys and their families trying to prove that the district should be held liable because its employees should have known about Berndt's behavior long before his suspension in 2011. The district has filed papers asking for some of the claims to be thrown out, arguing, for example, that there is no proof that the parents were harmed as a result of Berndt's actions.

District spokesman Sean Rossall declined to discuss the complaints against Berndt "out of respect for the students and families involved."

"One thing is clear, Mr. Berndt went to incredible lengths to conceal his misdeeds," Rossall said.

The new release of documents comes after a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge overseeing the case ruled that much of the evidence in the civil trial can be publicly disclosed, except for names and identifying information of victims and their parents, police investigative reports and Berndt's personal information such as his Social Security number.

"The parties cannot shield information from disclosure merely because it is damaging or of an upsetting nature," Judge John Shepard Wiley Jr. wrote.

The district last year agreed to pay $30 million to settle 58 claims brought by those victimized by Berndt, about half of the students who have filed claims. The judge is scheduled to hear the district's motions on the remaining cases Oct. 7.

It's not clear from the 1983 memo what action, if any, the school took against Berndt over the parent's complaint. The school's principal at the time has since died, the district says.

In the early 1990s, his successor received complaints about the teacher when several fourth-grade girls went to the principal alleging that Berndt was regularly masturbating in class, the former students recalled in testimony. The principal dismissed the claims and accused them of lying, the former students recounted.

"I don't think they took us seriously," one said.

I don't think they took us seriously. - a former Miramonte Elementary student of school officials

About the same time, a young teacher was observing the class when Berndt, clad in loose-fitting shorts, sat in a way that exposed his genitals, the teacher later recalled in a deposition. She said the students turned back at her and met her eye, as if to make sure she knew of their discomfort.

She marched into the office of yet another principal to complain, the teacher recalled. But the principal wasn't surprised.

"I know, baby. I've had several complaints from parents, too, but there's nothing we can do about it," the teacher recalled the principal saying.

That principal denied ever receiving such a report, calling the teacher a liar. She also denied knowing about any past complaints about Berndt's behavior, saying that she had never seen the 1983 memo.

In 1994, a student reported that Berndt, while grabbing some papers, reached past her desk and touched her inappropriately. That incident was reported to the police but dropped after investigators concluded there was insufficient evidence.

Former senior district administrator George McKenna, who was elected last month to the Board of Education, suggested in testimony that inconsistent record-keeping may have led the school's principals to treat complaints as isolated incidents.

Asked about the 1983 memo, McKenna said it should have been kept in records maintained at the school by the principal.

"But sometimes site files get discarded when principals change," he said. "Some principals keep the file. Some principals take them with them when they leave. They shouldn't, but some of them have done that."

The district did not, at the time, have firm rules on how to maintain school files.

●●at 12:49 AM September 27, 2014 ‘Move On’ comments on the LATimes website:

“It's one thing to have standards and then fail to live up to those standards. It's entirely different to never have had any standards at all.”

Miramonte: LA school district's claim it shredded child abuse reports now in question

Karen Foshay| 89.3 KPCC

45252 full

Miramonte Elementary School in Los Angeles. Krista Kennell/AFP/Getty Images

Audio from this story: 2:34 Listen

September 25 2014  ::  Questions are being raised about the Los Angeles Unified School District's claim earlier this year that it shredded 20 years' worth of suspected child abuse reports in connection with the Miramonte abuse scandal.

In response to a judge's questions, about 100 current and former members of L.A. Unified's general counsel's office said they had no knowledge of the records being destroyed, and district officials have not answered similar questions posed by KPCC.

In April, KPCC was the first to report that LAUSD officials said the suspected child abuse reports, or SCARs, were ordered destroyed in 2008 after the district's general counsel concluded it was not legally allowed to hold on to them. The records dated back to 1988, according to a district spokesman.

L.A. Unified made its comments about the documents after attorneys representing dozens of children suing the district over the actions of former Miramonte teacher Mark Berndt requested that the school district produce all of its suspected child abuse reports.

In November 2013, Berndt pleaded no contest to 23 counts of lewd acts upon a child and was sentenced to 25 years in state prison.

Since LAUSD's claim that it had destroyed the records, district officials said they subsequently discovered two sets of SCAR reports, involving hundreds of abuse allegations. Those discoveries prompted plaintiffs' attorneys in the Miramonte suit to ask L.A. Superior Court Judge Mary Strobel to find out what really happened to all of the reports.

Earlier this month, Strobel ordered L.A. Unified to ask approximately 100 current and former employees of the general counsel's office if they know:

  • Whether any SCAR reports destroyed;
  • If so, what exactly was destroyed;
  • When were they destroyed and by whom; and
  • Do any copies of the destroyed documents still exist?

The district did the polling via email Sept. 12, and according to a court document filed by L.A. Unified's attorneys last Friday, everyone said they did not know the answers to the questions, except for one employee on maternity leave who had not responded. 

KPCC has repeatedly asked the district for specifics on who ordered the documents destroyed and when, and who carried out the order. To date, L.A. Unified has not answered those questions.

A KPCC public records request seeking all records related to the shredding of SCAR reports is still outstanding.

Last Friday's court filing by L.A. Unified said that two staffers had information about post-2002 SCARs, "and this led to discovering an additional 262 SCAR Reports that were never before located."

That news irritated plaintiffs' attorney John Manly. "They say they couldn't find child abuse records yet they now found hundreds," he said, asserting that this latest discovery just adds to the confusion over what happened to the thousands of suspected child abuse reports dating back to 1988.

This is not the first time L.A. Unified has gotten into trouble over its handling of evidence in the Miramonte civil suit. In May, district lawyers were fined $6,000 for not handing over hundreds of photographs of children L.A. Unified claimed it didn't have, but in fact did.

"You expect behavior like this from Enron," said Manly. "You don't expect this from a school district."

One of the two district staffers with knowledge of the newly-discovered post-2002 SCARs was Yolanda Hill, who said in a declaration that she has worked as a legal secretary in the general counsel's office for 18 years. Hill said that she reviewed SCAR reports and transferred basic information from them onto a spreadsheet.

Hill did not say how many reports she reviewed, but that after reviewing each one, she would place it in a small box. She believed she stopped working with them in 2007 or 2008, and at that point she recalled there being "between two and four of these small boxes of Suspected Child Abuse Reports." She added that "I do not know what happened to the SCAR Reports once I left to another work assignment."

Hill said "the vast majority" of the reports involved alleged neglect and physical abuse by "family members and not district employees."

The other staffer with knowledge of the post-2002 SCARs is Rosa Gianopoulos, a senior office technician in the general counsel's office, according to L.A. Unified. In the cover letter to its filing last Friday, the district's lawyers said a declaration from Gianopoulos was attached. But no declaration was attached; instead, the document said "declaration to follow."

Over the last several days, plaintiffs' attorneys pressed L.A. Unified's lawyers to produce the declaration. The district's attorneys provided an update on Thursday in the form of a message to Judge Strobel. It said while Gianopoulos "had no information regarding the disposal of any SCAR Reports, she did scan on to an LAUSD server and sort" the newly discovered SCAR documents.

The message went on to say that this past Monday, Gianopoulos provided L.A. Unified with a declaration describing how she carried out that work, "but we believe it to contain errors. Unfortunately, we did not have an opportunity to confer with Ms. Gianopoulos to make the appropriate corrections because she became ill on Monday, left to seek medical care and has not returned to work since." The note said she won't return to work until October 1.

Another plaintiffs' attorney, Luis Carrillo, will go to court Monday and ask Judge Strobel to compel the district to provide Gianopoulos' declaration. The district's lawyers said they will provide her statement if ordered to do so by the judge

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