L.A.’s School Sex-Abuse Scandal Widens

The district faces a legal crisis over horrifying allegations of abuse, Christine Pelisek reports.

Krista Kennell, AFP / Getty Images

As more schoolchildren come forward with allegations of sexual abuse, and lawsuits begin to mount, the question on everyone’s mind is why 61-year-old Miramonte Elementary School teacher Mark Berndt wasn’t arrested earlier. What is more clear, however, is that the Los Angeles Unified School District faces a day of reckoning not unlike what happened with the Roman Catholic Archdiocese in Los Angeles.

Assuming the horrific allegations are true, “they face massive litigation and there will be a settlement for many victims, and that is a foregone conclusion,” said John E.B. Myers, a professor at Pacific McGeorge School of Law in Sacramento, who studies abuse cases. “It is similar to the Catholic Church.”

The church sexual-abuse scandal destroyed the reputation of Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahoney and led to the largest civil settlement by any archdiocese—an astounding $660 million in 2007. Myers estimates that the second-largest school district in the nation could also wind up paying out millions to Berndt’s alleged victims.

Law-enforcement officials say Berndt made his young charges pose for photographs in which they were blindfolded, bound, and sometimes gagged, and then fed spoonfuls of semen and cookies laced with semen as part of a twisted ritual he called a “tasting game.”

In other instances, he allegedly placed gargantuan Madagascar cockroaches on their faces, and even sent some of the twisted photographs home with his students. Yesterday, another 200 photographs of students allegedly taken by Berndt were found at a pharmacy where he processed his film, and detectives are looking for about 25 more kids shown in the pictures. The original batch of 400 photographs discovered by detectives included around 175 children.

Berndt worked for more than three decades at Miramonte, one of the nation’s largest elementary schools, with about 1,500 students, located in a lower-income neighborhood in South L.A. He was arrested on Jan. 31 at his apartment in Torrance and charged with 23 counts of committing lewd acts on nearly two dozen elementary-school children between 2005 and 2011. Berndt’s public defender, Elizabeth Braunstein, had no comment.

Not surprisingly, the lawsuits are already piling up. On Monday, one of Berndt’s alleged victims filed a $15 million suit against the school district, claiming negligence and violations of the girl’s civil rights. The lawsuit contends that the district ignored earlier reports of Berndt’s alleged behavior, and its lack of oversight allowed the girl to become his victim. By Tuesday, three more lawsuits had been filed on behalf of three female students; those suits allege intentional infliction of emotional distress, negligence, sexual battery, and assault. One of the lawsuits claims that Berndt gave one of the victims a CD of songs he made for her.

“The case is going to become nasty,” said defense attorney Luis A. Carrillo, who is currently representing nine alleged victims of Berndt. He believes the number of children who come forward with allegations against Berndt will skyrocket. “We are just seeing the tip of the iceberg,” he said. “I expect the number of victims to be over 100.”

Similar to what happened with the Catholic Church abuse scandal, the travails at Miramonte have become a Pandora’s box that can’t be shut. On Tuesday, 49-year-old Miramonte teacher Martin Springer was charged with three counts of lewd acts upon a child over a three-month period in 2009. The school district and police are also looking into a former female teacher’s aide who allegedly sent a love letter to a fourth grader in 2009. And there are reports that a third-grade teacher, who is also female, may have aided and abetted Berndt by supplying him with cute girls from her class.

In 1991, two students allegedly told a Miramonte counselor that they saw him masturbating behind his desk during class, according to a report in the Los Angeles Times.The girls were told to stop making up stories, the paper reported. Two years later, another girl reported to school administrators that Berndt had tried to fondle her. Detectives investigated but no charges were filed. Then, in 2008, the father of a young girl complained to the school principal about inappropriate photos Berndt took of her and other students. The principal transferred the girl to Springer’s classroom, and Springer allegedly touched the girl inappropriately on the leg and thigh, according to the father. Springer, who is in jail, did not return a call for comment.

“There is no excuse how this kind of misconduct could take place for so long in any classroom,” said attorney Dave Ring, who is representing some of the students. “It shows there is a complete lack of supervision of teachers at this school.”

Terri Miller, president of Stop Educator Sexual Abuse, Misconduct and Exploitation, an advocacy organization based in Las Vegas, said it is a common practice for schools to get rid of troublesome teachers as soon as possible to avoid scandals. “They don’t want the cloud of shame over their school,” she said. “It is exactly what happens in the churches. It is called passing the trash. They let them quietly resign.”

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The Los Angeles Unified School District has already seen its share of abuse cases. In one, Ricardo Guevara, a teacher’s aide at Miramonte, was convicted in 2005 of lewd acts with three girls. He was caught putting his hand into the pants of one girl in the courtyard of the campus—but only after three earlier sets of complaints against him by students were discounted by school officials. The district shelled out $1.6 million to the families of the three female victims in 2009.

In another case, Stephen Rooney, a teacher and administrator at Foshay Learning Center, was transferred to another school even though it was discovered that he was accused of having a sexual relationship with a student. He was eventually charged and sentenced to eight years in prison for molesting three teenage girls and a minor, including the student at Foshay, in 2008. Still more lawsuits are pending against Vance Miller, a well-regarded arts teacher at Hamilton High School, who is accused of having sexual relationships with young male students while they were minors. Los Angeles police investigated the charges but the Los Angeles district attorney’s office didn’t file charges, citing insufficient evidence. Miller was fired by the L.A. school district on Tuesday. Reached at his home in Los Angeles, he refused to comment.

Perhaps the most damning question the school district will face in the Miramonte lawsuits is: if the allegations against Berndt are true, how could he have gotten away with his deviant behavior for so long? It’s a question L.A. Unified Superintendent John Deasy himself is asking. “How is it conceivably possible that this could take place ... and [administrators] didn’t know or say anything, is what I’m trying to understand,” he said at a press conference after a meeting with Miramonte students and their families Monday night. Last week, Deasy launched an internal investigation to determine why Berndt seems to have escaped suspicion for so long and whether any other employees were involved. Earlier this week, the district announced that it would temporarily replace all the teachers at Miramonte until the investigation is completed.

Even though Deasy has been quick to react, many wonder whether the alleged crimes would have ever been stopped if it wasn’t for the alert CVS photo-lab technician who processed Berndt’s film in late 2010, and contacted the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department with his findings.

“It took a CVS employee to break the case open,” said Ring. “If it wasn’t for him it would still be going on.”