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Tensions grow between LA Unified, lawyers in Miramonte abuse cases

Miramonte Elementary School in South Los Angeles, where not one, but two teachers were accused of engaging in lewd acts with students. Criminal cases are pending and civil lawsuits are still pending, two years later.
Miramonte Elementary School in South Los Angeles, where not one, but two teachers were accused of engaging in lewd acts with students. Criminal cases are pending and civil lawsuits are still pending, two years later.
Grant Slater/KPCC

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It was a moment every parent would dread. The telephone rings. It's a neighbor, who tells you to turn on the television news. And on the screen is a photo of your daughter's third grade teacher, who had been arrested for lewd acts against children. 

In this case, it was Miramonte teacher Mark Berndt, who is alleged to have fed his students his bodily fluids on cookies and spoons as part of a tasting game.

The parent of a former third grader at the school (who did not want her real name published because it would identify her daughter as a victim of sexual abuse) said after she got a call from a neighbor, she found a photo Berndt had sent home with her nine-year-old. In it, her daughter holds a cookie that is coated with a white substance.

"I broke down," said the woman, who asked to be referred to by the pseudonym Gloria. "I kept going through my whole house, just looking for every single picture."

She and her daughter are among nearly 200 students and teachers that sued the Los Angeles Unified School District over allegations of abuse at the school going as far back as 2005. The district agreed months ago to pay $30 million to settle 61 cases -- the largest involving a single teacher in its history.

But two-thirds of the cases remain open. And negotiations aren't going well.

The district offered a $17 million settlement to 35 alleged victims in early June. Weeks passed and no one had accepted the offer.

That's when the district set up a website - in Spanish and English - that featured a timer that counted down the seconds until the deal expired at 5 pm on July 5. It said the district would seek to recover legal costs from those families who refused the offer and don't win a larger award at trial.

A few days later, a couple of plaintiffs had accepted the offer. The rest passed on it.

“It’s just another of the underhanded dirty tricks of the dishonest school district and dishonest lawyers representing the school district,” Luis Carillo, an attorney for 23 of the children, said of the website.

He and other plaintiffs' lawyers have formed a coalition to demand concessions from L.A. Unified. At a press conference in front of the school administration building June 26, they announced they would not entertain any discussions of money until the district took steps to ensure student safety and expose abusive teachers.

The lawyers have accused the district of delaying disclosure of details of its investigation into abuses at Miramonte.

“To this date, they have not disclosed the documents that detail exactly what they knew about these teachers who were abusing kids, when they knew it and what they may have done in response to it,” attorney Vince Finaldi said at the press conference.

A professor at Loyola Law School said the district will have to release the documents at some point in the legal process. And what they reveal could make a big difference.

“That may change the outcome of the whole case down the road,” said John Nockleby, an expert on tort law. “One could say it’s a negotiating tactic, but at the same time, there may be good and valid reasons to want systemic change in the district. And you can’t get that just by demanding money.”

David Homlquist, general counsel for L.A. unified, said the district will comply but it's still early in the process. He said plaintiffs' lawyers were requesting a lot of information which would take time and expense to produce.

“We only have so much money set aside to pay for these. We’d rather see the student victims get that money rather than pay attorneys and experts on our side,” Holmquist said.

He said the district has already spent $2.5 million in legal fees defending itself and the final tally will likely surpass $5 million.

That's just legal fees. 

The district has filed a claim with its insurance company, Everest National Insurance Company, to cover the $30 million it agreed to pay dozens of plaintiffs in March.  The insurer responded with a lawsuit, claiming the five policies it sold the district don’t apply.

L.A. Unified officials said they expect the court to order Everest to pay, but the district has set aside funds in case it does not.

“All this money is money that could go to the school site and could be spent for kids’ education, but we have to use this money,” said Gregory McNair, chief business and compliance counsel for the district. “We set it aside to use this money for paying these liability lawsuits.”

As the abuse lawsuits drag on, at least one parent said she's willing to wait. Gloria said her main goal in suing the district is to force it to agree to safety changes. She still has a young son in the school system.

“After he crosses the gate into the school, he’s helpless," she said. "I can’t see what he’s doing or where he’s going, who’s he talking to. It’s nerve-wracking to have to turn away and just wish him that he’s fine.”