By Thomas Himes, Los Angeles Daily News http://bit.ly/1rsxuWi
George McKenna, left. Mark Berndt, right. | Miramonte Elementary School (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)
9/26/14, 4:37 PM PDT :: Los Angeles Unified’s newest board member, George McKenna, allegedly knew about an investigation into former Miramonte Elementary School teacher Mark Berndt but let him stay inside a classroom where a young victim claims he continued to sexually abuse her, according to court documents in a lawsuit against the district released this week.
McKenna, who was area superintendent responsible for overseeing the South Los Angeles school during the sex abuse scandal that has already cost LAUSD $30 million to settle cases with 63 children, was allegedly told about the investigation into Berndt in December 2010, according to court filings.
On Jan. 3, 2011, Berndt went back into a classroom, where he allegedly fed the girl his semen, said Brian Claypool, a Pasadena-based attorney representing the third-grade girl and her mother, along with other alleged victims seeking monetary damages in the civil lawsuit. The girl was among victims that Berndt was convicted of molesting in criminal court, Claypool said.
McKenna and two of his subordinates “should have either removed Berndt or notified parents prior to January 2011. Instead they allowed Berndt to return to the classroom on January 3, 2011, and abuse (the girl),” the documents state.
The documents detail incidents beginning in 1983, when Berndt allegedly exposed himself to students.
Claypool said he plans to present the evidence uncovered in the civil case to the U.S. Department of Justice, which could decide to conduct a criminal investigation of administrators who he believes committed child endangerment by harboring a sex predator.
“If they think this is just about a civil trial in November and December, they’ve got something else coming to them,” Claypool said.
The next court date is set for Oct. 7, when a judge will hear the district’s request to dismiss the case.
A spokesman for the district’s legal department, Sean Rossall, stated in an email that the claims are an effort to save the civil case mustered after the district’s effort to dismiss it.
He did not, however, deny that law enforcement called a district administrator under McKenna in November and December 2010.
Berndt pleaded no contest to committing lewd acts on children and was sentenced to 25 years in prison in November 2013. Berndt, of Torrance, worked as an LAUSD teacher for more than 25 years before admitting that he fed unwitting children his semen by the spoonful and on cookies in a “tasting game,” as well as putting cockroaches on their faces and photographing the abuse.
McKenna retired from being area superintendent to win a spot on the school board last month. Two of his former subordinates, who allegedly knew about the investigation in time to stop Berndt from abusing the girl again, still hold high-level positions in LAUSD, according to court documents.
LAUSD officials would not say when McKenna learned of the investigation. McKenna did not return calls for comment.
Police began a probe on Nov. 18, 2010, when a CVS employee processing the pictures became alarmed by their contents and called police to the Redondo Beach store.
Within hours, police called Miramonte principal and McKenna’s subordinate Martin Sandoval, according to transcripts of sworn testimony from Torrance police Sgt. Shawn Freeman.
During the call, Freeman described the 48 pictures, which showed children inside a classroom with tape over their mouths, blindfolded, posed with Berndt and, in some, ingesting a substance later identified as semen, according to the transcripts.
Sandoval admitted during that conversation there was no school activity that would let Berndt tape shut a child’s mouth, Freeman testified.
Under district policy, McKenna or someone he designated should have been told about suspected child abuse, according to LAUSD’s then policy on Child Abuse and Neglect Reporting requirements.
Additionally, district policy called for local superintendents such as McKenna to consider taking teachers suspected of child abuse out of classrooms. According to district policy, the area superintendent or division head should have made student safety a primary concern in deciding whether to remove a teacher.
McKenna and a subordinate allegedly learned about the investigation in December, after a Los Angeles County child abuse investigator called Sandoval, seeking to interview Berndt and students, according to lawsuit claims and court documents.
But when school returned from break on Jan. 3, 2011, Berndt was still inside a classroom.
Rossall said that Berndt wasn’t removed from the classroom earlier because officials didn’t know the nature of the allegations until January.
“When we learned of the nature of these allegations in January 2011, we took swift action. Dr. McKenna acted immediately and with resolve to protect children in this matter,” Rossall stated in an email.
Sandoval testified he didn’t understand that Berndt was being investigated for child abuse, despite receiving calls from Freeman and a child abuse investigator, according to the sworn testimony.
“I don’t know that they were saying they were investigating a crime,” Sandoval said, according to the documents.
Sandoval is currently the principal of President Avenue Elementary School in South Los Angeles. He testified that he has never been criticized by McKenna or any other boss for his handling of Miramonte, in fact he was told he did his work “well,” documents stated.
Los Angeles Unified had numerous reports of Berndt’s behavior dating to 1983, when the teacher allegedly exposed himself to students on a field trip, according to the newly released court documents.
During the 1990-91 school year, LAUSD brought in a counselor to meet with students who claimed Berndt had masturbated in front of them, according to court documents. The students were allegedly told “not to make up lies” during the counseling session, according to the lawsuit. Parents were not notified, and Berndt was allowed to continue teaching.
In July 1993, a fellow teacher reported that Berndt exposed himself to another teacher and her classroom of students. The principal at that time told the teacher there was nothing she could do because “Berndt had tenure,” according to the lawsuit.
In 1994, a Suspected Child Abuse Report was filed after a student told her mother that Berndt touched her inappropriately. Berndt was not disciplined in that incident, according to the court records released this week.
“This rises to the level of knowing and harboring a predator,” Claypool said in an interview. “They had knowledge of this guy being a pervert and they intentionally and knowingly facilitated Mark Berndt being able to carry out all of these perverted acts for 25 years.”