150 individual claims will be paid by the Los Angeles Unified School District — a total of $139 million — as a result of charges against a former elementary school teacher who pleaded no contest to committing lewd acts against children, according to Caroline Porter of The Wall Street Journal.
This ends a dramatic several years since law-enforcement officials discovered inappropriate photos of students linked to a Miramonte Elementary School teacher of 30 years, Mark Berndt.
In 2012, Berndt was charged with 23 counts of sexual molestation, which took place between 2005 and 2010. One of the acts cited was blindfolding students and feeding them his semen, telling them it was a tasting game. In January of 2011, Berndt was removed from the school and then was fired. All faculty was removed in 2012 as a result of the scandal, during the police investigation. He was sentenced to 25 years in prison.
"While we know Mr. Berndt went to extreme lengths to hide his conduct, we know that our job protecting students is never done," Ramon Cortines, superintendent of the district, said Friday. "While we are proud of the steps that we've taken to enhance student safety, the only way we can have the safest schools is through partnerships with parents and the community."
Again in 2013 and 2014, $30 million was paid by the district to settle claims from 65 additional individuals concerning Berndt's activities. The district has improved its protection system by adding a parental notification policy, a student-safety investigation team, and a data warehouse to store records. The district will pay the $139 million from its general budget, and it says the district's insurers will provide some part of the settlement. Some say the settlement is enough.
"No amount of money will heal these students," said Gloria Romero, former state senator and founder and director of the California Center for Parent Empowerment, a nonprofit. She believes that more school officials should have been fired. "We need a structural healing, not just an open checkbook."
Miramonte Elementary School is in a working-class area of Los Angeles, reports the Chicago Tribune. News of the abuse, after Berndt's arrest in January 2012, was met with protests by angry parents. This case brought on a review of employee files going back for decades to assure that any potentially problematic employees could be vetted. The district also submitted, and in some cases resubmitted, hundreds of reports of any alleged misconduct to the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing. Governor Jerry Brown signed a bill in the early part of this year aimed at allowing speedy dismissal of public school teachers for gross misconduct as a direct response to this case.
How the settlement money is divided will be up to a retired judge who will take into account how badly-scarred emotionally each child is at this time and which children will require therapy.
As early as 1983, Berndt had a complaint lodged against him for removing his pants during a field trip to a museum. A photo processor in a pharmacy who contacted the police after Brendt dropped off film that showed children being fed a creamy white substance.
The 19-year-old woman was only a month into her work in the pharmacy photo department, and was told by her supervisors not to call the police. Still, she called, writes Brian Melley, reporting for the Associated Press.
"There was a volcano of evidence," attorney John Manly said. "The district settled this case because there was a gun pointed at their head, a legal gun, and it was about to go off and the public was going to find out everything. [The pharmacy worker] is the hero. If she hadn't made that call we wouldn't be here and he'd still be teaching."
One young client of Attorney Brian Claypool said to her therapist that she was not sure if she wanted to live anymore. An example, said Manly, of the grief that these families have experienced and continue to suffer.