NEW: $139 million is largest settlement against "a public entity involving child abuse"
NEW: Settlement comes a week before cases were to go to civil trial
The district will pay $139.2 million to families of 81 children allegedly abused by a teacher
A 30-year veteran teacher is now serving a 25-year sentence for lewd conduct
The Los Angeles public school district will pay more than $139.2 million to the families of 81 children allegedly abused by an elementary teacher now serving a prison sentence for lewd conduct, officials said Friday.
John Manly, one of the plaintiffs’ attorney, called the amount “the largest settlement in the history of the United States against a public entity involving child abuse.”
The settlement comes after the district earlier paid $30 million to settle 63 other students’ claims alleging they were victims of sexually lewd acts by Mark Berndt of Miramonte Elementary.
A teacher for 30 years, Berndt is now serving a 25-year prison sentence for putting pupils in bondage, and then photographing them with semen-filled spoons held at their mouths and 3-inch cockroaches crawling across their faces.
“I cannot imagine what it would be like for a parent to try to explain to their little girl or their little boy (what happened to them). I can’t explain it. I was going to have a difficult time explaining it to a jury,” Manly said.
Manly contended there were “two perpetrators:” Berndt and “those in successive (school) administrations from 1983 to the present who ignored and in some instances actively concealed what he was doing.”
The cases involving 81 children were set to go to trial in a week, and the settlement money would be used for children’s counseling, plaintiffs’ attorneys said.
“What transpired at Miramonte was nothing less than emotional mass murder by Mark Berndt,” Manly said.
Berndt had pleaded no contest to felony lewd acts on 23 children. The scandal led to more than 100 students suing the district, claiming that they, too, were victims.
The more than $139 million settlement “resolves the remaining Miramonte litigation at issue,” the district said in a statement. “The school board extended itself and significant financial resources to resolve these cases because it allowed these students and families to avoid potentially painful litigation. Moreover, it is in the best interest of the school district’s financial future.”
Superintendent Ramon C. Cortines said the settlement spares “the Miramonte community the anguish of a protracted trial, while at the same time being mindful of the financial consequences stemming from settlements.”
The settlement strikes “a balance between those objectives,” Cortines said in a statement.
“There is a sacred trust put in us to protect the children we serve. While we know Mr. Berndt went to extreme lengths to hide his conduct, we know that our job protecting students is never done,” the schools chief said.
Dave Holmquist, general counsel, said the money “will provide for the future needs of these students.”
“We are glad that this will help close this chapter for these families. We remain committed to helping them continue the process of healing,” Holmquist said.
In the criminal case against Berndt, the 23 alleged victims were between 7 and 10 years old, and all but two of them were girls, the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office has said.
In December 2010, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department began investigating Berndt after authorities learned of hundreds of “questionable photographs of children on film that Mr. Berndt had brought (to) a local store to have developed,” according to Tuesday’s lawsuit.
Berndt was removed from his teaching job in January 2011 after school officials learned of the police investigation, authorities said.
Authorities have said they have discovered roughly 600 images allegedly taken by Berndt in his classroom.
Berndt initially challenged the school district’s decision to dismiss him. But he eventually dropped his appeal and resigned in spring 2011.