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LAUSD Allegations of Abuse

lausdThe nation’s second-largest school district has come under scrutiny following a wave of sexual abuse allegations.

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HARBOR CITY, Calif. (KTLA) — Former Miramonte Elementary School principal Martin Sandoval met with parents Thursday at his new post at President Avenue Elementary.

harbor-city-elementarySandoval was the principal at Miramonte in 2012 when teacher Mark Berndt was arrested for alleged lewd acts with 23 boys and girls.

For the past year, Sandoval worked as a director at the North East Service Center.

There were concerns from some parents about his handling of the sex scandal.

But in a statement, the district supported Sandoval’s actions stating he “acted quickly when he had information about alleged misconduct to protect the children.”

LOS ANGELES — The LAUSD will pay about $30 million to settle 58 legal claims involving a former Miramonte Elementary School teacher accused of committing lewd acts on children, plaintiffs’ lawyers said Tuesday.

The settlements are the first in a case that rocked the nation’s second-largest school system and prompted a flurry of new policies to better protect students.

miramonte-school-picEach of the victims will receive about $470,000 under the preliminary deal. It is the largest payout in a case involving a single teacher in the district.

The pact, which must still be approved by a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge, covers about half of the identified victims at the school.

Lawyers for many of the others have sued, contending that the district did not protect children from the veteran teacher.

Those who settled wanted to spare the children from drawn-out litigation that could potentially force them to testify and cause them more harm, their attorneys said.

“This settlement was reached without putting any child through difficult and intense litigation,” said David Ring, an attorney for seven students who agreed to the payment.

“We acted in the best interests of these children, with the hope that they move on with their lives and try to put the Miramonte nightmare behind them.”

One mother, whose 12-year-old son was a student in the teacher’s class and will receive a settlement, said the amount was suitable — but she still worries about how her son will deal with the abuse as he gets older.

The money will help pay for the boy’s ongoing, regular therapy, she said.

“He didn’t know what happened to him until they told him,” she said in Spanish. “It hurts him now, but he’s still so young. Once he gets older, he will understand and it will hurt him so much more.”

L.A. Unified officials would not comment on the settlement amounts. District general counsel David Holmquist said the mediation process was difficult but was done to “promote healing in the community.”

Mark Berndt, 61, was arrested in January 2012 after a yearlong investigation.

The case came to authorities’ attention after a South Bay drugstore photo technician noticed images of children blindfolded, some with tape over their mouths.

Berndt was charged with 23 counts of lewd conduct involving allegations that he spoon-fed semen to blindfolded children as part of what he purportedly called a tasting game.

He’s also accused of feeding children semen-tainted cookies and placing cockroaches on their faces.

Berndt has pleaded not guilty to the charges and is being held in lieu of $23-million bail.

The claims accuse the district of not doing enough to protect students from Berndt even after fielding complaints about inappropriate conduct at the school, located in the Florence-Firestone area.

He was the target of a police investigation in 1993 involving claims by a female student that he tried to fondle her, but the case was dropped after investigators determined there was insufficient evidence.

But after Berndt’s arrest, L.A. Schools Supt. John Deasy said a sweeping internal investigation turned up no record of that charge or other documents involving past incidents or suspicions about the teacher.

Since then, Deasy has ordered that all teachers accused of misconduct be reported to the state credentialing commission, an action that covers hundreds of L.A. Unified instructors.

The district also temporarily replaced Miramonte’s entire staff in the second half of the school year and required all employees to take a refresher course on the reporting of abuse.

Numerous teachers were removed from their classrooms in schools across the district pending investigations into alleged abuse.

In addition, state legislators proposed bills to give school boards more power to fire teachers accused of sexual misconduct and strip retirement pensions from instructors convicted of sex-related crimes against students.

Those have not been approved.

The settlements were reached after months of intense negotiations that began last September.

Former state Supreme Court Justice Cruz Reynoso and former L.A. County Superior Court Judge Peter Lichtman presided over the mediation process between L.A. Unified and 17 law firms. The agreements included 14 of those firms.

In a joint statement, Reynoso and Lichtman said the agreements avoid “the pains of litigation” and instead provide “fair and reasonable compensation that respects the needs of the students affected.”

But attorneys representing other students who have not settled said the amounts announced Tuesday did not begin to address the harm inflicted on the children.

Among 191 claims filed against the district, representing 129 students and 62 parents and guardians, 71 have not been resolved.

In 60 cases, lawyers Brian Claypool, Luis Carrillo and John Manly opted out of the mediation talks and have sued L.A. Unified. T

heir litigation also accuses the district of failing to protect students from Berndt, among other allegations.

“The damage done by this teacher is long-term,” said Manly, who represents more than 30 victims.

“The help and counseling these children will need will cost more than that. I believe a jury will see this for the horror it is.”

Carrillo, a South Pasadena attorney representing 23 victims, said it would cost $576,000 for lifetime treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder, eating problems and other consequences of Berndt’s alleged lewd conduct.

“It is the intended strategy to put this out there to get other parents to settle … but the amount is too low,” he said of the district’s decision to settle.

Tim Hale, a Santa Barbara attorney who specializes in sex-abuse cases, said he believed the Miramonte cases could potentially win million-dollar jury verdicts.

Although Berndt is not accused of sexually abusing the students, Hale said that charges of feeding semen to them and placing cockroaches on their faces would horrify jurors.

“Those are the kinds of charges that could inflame a jury and result in seven-figure awards,” said Hale, who won average settlements of $1.3 million each in 2006 for 25 sexual abuse victims of Franciscan priests.

Holmquist said the district remains “ready and willing” to work with attorneys of the remaining victims if they decide to enter into settlement talks.

District officials said they have provided counseling and help for affected families, cooperated fully with law enforcement and acted quickly and comprehensively to address shortcomings in their response to allegations.

Settlements would be paid out of the district’s liability fund, and Holmquist said he expects insurance to cover all of it.

Dmitry Gorin, who prosecuted sex crimes and represented Steve Rooney, a former assistant principal in L.A. Unified who was charged with sex crimes, said the district wanted to resolve the cases and was willing to pay the price.

“The LAUSD wants to put its high-profile sexual misconduct case behind them as quickly as possible without having on display the negligence of the administration,” Gorin said.

“Their civil counsel is trying to get this behind them and get back to educating children in safe environment.”

-Los Angeles Times

It’s an elementary school sex scandal that shocked Southern California and the nation.

A veteran teacher at Miramonte Elementary in South Los Angeles was arrested and charged with committing lewd acts with children.

Among those acts — tricking the youngsters into eating cookies covered with his bodily fluid.

Mark Berndt says he’s innocent.

Regardless, the Los Angeles Unified School District was slammed with nearly 200 claims and lawsuits involving 129 school children as alleged victims.

Now — more than one year after the scandal broke — officials at LAUSD are announcing a multi-million dollar settlement that will cover about half of the children involved in the case.

“We’re very pleased with the settlement,” says David Holmquist, LAUSD General Counsel.

He says it achieves the district’s goals to “try to restore healing to the community” and “to provide for both the health and educational needs of the students who were impacted by what happened at Miramonte.”

Attorney Luis Carrillo is not part of the settlement. He represents 23 children and 14 parents.

“That amount is insufficient. It’s not sufficient for the long-term mental health care treatment of the children we represent who are suffering from PTSD, depression, eating disorders, nightmares and things of that nature,” he says.

Frank Perez represents eight children. He agreed to the settlement, saying this way, the alleged victims avoid the grueling process of litigation, of testifying in court, and so forth.

“It’s not so much a matter of being pleased with it or not. It’s a matter of taking the totality of the circumstances and trying to do what’s right for the child,” Perez says.

“This is a reasonable result that for better or for worse, fairly monetizes the damages that these kids suffered,” he added.

Holmquist says he hopes eventually to settle with all attorneys, clients and parents involved in this case.

–Chris Wolfe, KTLA News

LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles Archdiocese said Monday that it had warned the L.A. Unified School District of concerns it had with a former priest accused of molestation before the school system hired him in 2002 as a community outreach coordinator.

The former priest, Joseph Pina, admitted in internal church documents to a sexual relationship with a minor and to repeated “boundary issues” with women throughout his career in the clergy.

pina-priestThe archdiocese apparently never alerted law enforcement authorities about Pina.

But a spokesman on Monday said the church did indicate its concerns to L.A. Unified in its response to a district questionnaire before the school system hired Pina.

“The Archdiocese received an employment questionnaire from the LAUSD in August 2001 regarding Joseph Pina,” Tod M. Tamberg, director of media relations, said in a statement. “In response to the question: ‘Should the Los Angeles Unified School District consider anything else regarding this candidate’s employment suitability?’, the Archdiocese checked the box, ‘yes,’ adding that we would ‘not recommend him for a position in the schools.’ In response to the next question on the form, ‘Would you hire this person again?’, the Archdiocese checked the box ‘no.’ “

Tamberg added: “There is no indication in our files of any follow-up from LAUSD once the form was returned to the LAUSD.”

Los Angeles schools Supt. John Deasy said the district is researching any past contact with the Archdiocese.

“There’s no form like that in his file whatsoever,” Deasy said. “Obviously, we’re looking into it.”

The schools chief, however, questioned why the church didn’t do more to warn school officials about the molestation allegations against Pina.

Deasy said he wondered why someone at the church “didn’t pick up the phone and make a call.”

Deasy also has ordered a broader review of Pina’s file, including his hiring process.

Pina, 66, was laid off from his full-time district job last year, but returned to work episodically to organize events. One event he may have helped organize was a ribbon-cutting Saturday for a new education facility. School district officials over the weekend, however, could not confirm that. Pina did not attend the event, and the district could not confirm payment for any help he may have provided.

Pina’s name emerged in documents released by the archdiocese to comply with a court order. His case was one of many in which church officials failed to take action to protect child victims and in which first consideration was given to helping the offending priests rather than their victims, according to the documentation.

A just-released, internal 1993 psychological evaluation states that Pina “remains a serious risk for acting out.” The evaluation recounts how Pina was attracted to a victim, an eighth-grade girl, when he saw her in a costume.

“She dressed as Snow White. … I had a crush on Snow White, so I started to open myself up to her,” he told the psychologist. “I felt like I fell in love with her. I got sexually involved with her, but never intercourse. She was about 17 when we got involved sexually, and it continued until she was about 19.”

In a report sent to a top aide to former L.A. Archbishop Roger M. Mahony, the psychologist expressed concern that the abuse was never reported to law enforcement authorities.

Pina’s evaluation also includes a recommendation “to take appropriate measures and precautions to [ensure] that he is not in a setting where he can victimize others.” Pina continued to work as a pastor as late as March 1998.

A former priest and suspected child molester left employment with the Los Angeles archdiocese to work for the L.A. Unified School District, officials confirmed Sunday.

The former clergyman, Joseph Pina, did not work with children in his school district job, L.A. schools Supt. John Deasy said.

pinaHe added that, as a result of the disclosures, Pina would no longer be employed by the nation’s second-largest school system.

Over the weekend, Deasy was unable to pull together Pina’s full employment history, but said the district already was looking into the matter of Pina’s hiring.

“I find it troubling,” he said of the disclosures about Pina. “And I also want to understand what knowledge that we had of any background problems when hiring him, and I don’t yet know that.”

L.A. Unified itself has come under fire in the last year for its handling of employees accused of sexual misconduct.

Pina, 66, was laid off from his full-time district job last year, but returned to work episodically to organize events.

One event he may have helped organize was a ribbon-cutting Saturday for a new education facility. School district officials over the weekend, however, could not confirm that.

Pina did not attend the event, and the district could not confirm payment for any help he may have provided.

Pina’s name emerged in documents released by the archdiocese to comply with a court order.

His case was one of many in which church officials failed to take action to protect child victims and in which first consideration was given to helping the offending priests rather than their victims, according to the documentation.

A just-released, internal 1993 psychological evaluation states that Pina “remains a serious risk for acting out.”

The evaluation recounts how Pina was attracted to a victim, an eighth-grade girl, when he saw her in a costume.

“She dressed as Snow White … I had a crush on Snow White, so I started to open myself up to her,” he told the psychologist.

“I felt like I fell in love with her. I got sexually involved with her, but never intercourse. She was about 17 when we got involved sexually, and it continued until she was about 19.”

In a report sent to a top Mahony aide, the psychologist expressed concern the abuse was never reported to authorities.

Pina’s evaluation also includes a recommendation “to take appropriate measures and precautions to insure that he is not in a setting where he can victimize others.”

Pina continued to work as a pastor as late as March 1998.

School district officials could not verify Pina’s hiring date over the weekend, but he took a job with L.A. Unified as the school system was carrying out the nation’s largest school construction program.

His job involved community outreach, building support for school projects, while also finding out communities’ concerns and trying to address them, officials said.

Such work was crucial to the program, because even though communities wanted new schools, their locations and other elements could prove controversial.

Such projects frequently involved tearing down homes or businesses, environmental cleanups, and the blocking of streets and other disruptions.

“His duties were to rally community support and elicit community comments regarding schools in a neighborhood,” district spokesman Tom Waldman said.

Pina’s work did bring him into contact with families, frequently at public meetings organized to hear and address their concerns.

Projects that Pina worked on included a new elementary school in Porter Ranch and a high school serving the west San Fernando Valley, Waldman said.

The high school, in particular, generated substantial public debate as a district team and a local charter school competed aggressively for control of the site.

The $19.5-billion building program is winding down, and, as a result, many jobs attached to it have come to an end. Pina’s was among them.

The dedication he may have helped organize Saturday was for the Richard N. Slawson Southeast Occupational Center in Bell.

Participants told KCET-TV, which first reported Pina’s school employment, that he had assisted with community outreach on that project.

The adult education and career technical education facility has 29 classrooms as well as health-career labs and child care for students. The school opened in August 2012.

Pina “was slated for some additional temporary work when the issue came to our attention last week and that work was canceled,” Deasy said.

It may have been Pina who first alerted district officials that his name appeared in disclosed documents, Deasy said.

Pina called a senior administrator in the facilities division. So far, no untoward issues have emerged regarding Pina’s work for L.A. Unified.

-Los Angeles Times

Parents are demanding answers Thursday after the LAPD launched an investigation into an employee suspected of misconduct at yet another  LAUSD school.

This time it involves a teacher at Alta Loma Elementary.

“My daughter says he asked her to scratch his leg and so she did – I told her you don’t touch him and he doesn’t touch you – that’s When she said well at least I got some cookies for it,” parent Paula Reyes.

That’s when this mother says she quickly pulled her daughter from the teachers classroom and notified the principal.

That was last march.

“Now we know of another case.”

She believes it’s with the same teacher. Earlier this month the principal sent a note home to parents.

It informs them a school employee is now being investigated by the LAPD for misconduct. No names revealed. A spokesperson for the LAUSD refused an on air interview and would not confirm what type of  misconduct the teacher is accused of.

“I’m one of the parents, I have two kids at the school,” parent Tony Protillo.

Concerned Parents gathering this afternoon inside a private residence tell me the school isn’t providing them with enough details.

“Give us information -what did he do and who did he do it to.”

Alta  Loma Elementary is located in a lower income neighborhood.

Just last Monday former Sen. Martha Escutia held a news conference demanding the LAUSD address teacher misconduct that lately appears to be plaguing schools in similar communities.

– Stefan Chase, KTLA News

LOS ANGELES (LA TIMES)- As the Los Angeles Unified School District tries to settle claims filed in connection with a teacher who allegedly molested children at Miramonte Elementary School, a jury awarded $6.9 million to another district student in a separate sexual abuse case.

The size of verdict — among the largest ever awarded in a district molestation case – suggests L.A. Unified could end up paying a large amount of money to wrap up the close to 200 pending legal claims related to the Miramonte teacher.

Lawyers for L.A. Unified recently announced the district intends to settle the Miramonte claims by the end of January. The claims accuse the district of not doing enough to protect students from veteran instructor Mark Berndt, even after fielding complaints about inappropriate conduct at the school.

Miramonte School

Berndt, who has been charged with 23 counts of lewd conduct, is accused of spoon-feeding semen to blindfolded children as part of what he allegedly called a tasting game. He’s also accused of putting cockroaches on children’s faces and feeding them semen-tainted cookies.

READ MORE: LA TIMES

lausdpicLOS ANGELES — Los Angeles school officials failed to promptly report nearly 150 cases of suspected teacher misconduct — including allegations of sexual contact with students — to state authorities as required by law, an audit released Thursday concluded.

The findings come 10 months after the Los Angeles Unified School District was rocked by the arrest of a teacher at Miramonte Elementary School for allegedly spoon-feeding semen to students in a classroom.

At the time, district officials acknowledged that they did not swiftly send all serious misconduct allegations to the Commission on Teacher Credentialing, which keeps a database that school systems use to verify teaching licenses.

The audit found that L.A. Unified submitted at least 144 cases of alleged teacher misconduct more than a year later than required, 31 of them more than three years late.

As a result, the commission was unable to “determine promptly whether it was appropriate to revoke the teachers’ certificates and thus prevent the individuals from working in other school districts,” according to the report.

In one case, the district reported an alleged sexual relationship between a teacher and a student in March — 3 1/2 years after the teacher left the district over the incident, the audit said. The “lack of timely reporting” prevented the commission from taking steps to keep the teacher from working elsewhere.

A Times investigation earlier this year examined another case in which L.A. Unified failed to report allegations against a former teacher who was later hired by another district.

During five years as a frequent substitute teacher, George Hernandez was investigated by police three times over allegations of sexual misconduct involving students. L.A. Unified did not report Hernandez to the state commission, and Hernandez subsequently became a substitute in the Inglewood Unified School District for nearly three years, through August 2010.

He now faces charges in connection with allegedly molesting a student in a classroom.

L.A. Unified officials said Thursday that they agreed with the audit’s findings and that they have already addressed the issues raised.

The audit “captured accurately what the district has done in terms of improvement and where the district was,” L.A. schools Supt. John Deasy said Thursday. He said he was “thankful and appreciative for the honesty and accuracy” of the audit.

Officials admitted they had not promptly alerted the credentialing panel about an investigation into allegations that Mark Berndt, the Miramonte teacher, had allegedly taken dozens of photos of students, some gagged, others being fed tainted cookies. Previous reports of questionable behavior by Berndt had failed to result in any discipline before his arrest.

Berndt is charged with 23 counts of lewd conduct and is being held in lieu of $23-million bail. He has pleaded not guilty.

After his arrest in January, the nation’s second-largest school system reviewed old files for evidence of other potential problem employees, submitted 600 records from the last four years to state regulators, and pledged to inform parents within 72 hours when an employee is removed from a school during an investigation into sexual misconduct. The district also improved its system of tracking misconduct allegations.

The audit, which examined six schools and selected misconduct allegations from 2007 to the present, also found that the district acted too slowly internally.

One example was an eight-month delay between the conclusion of an investigation and “the date on which the school’s principal issued a memo to the employee about the incident, with no indication of anything occurring in the interim,” auditors wrote. “According to district staff, the principal struggled to write the memo.”

Other delays were blamed on poor past procedures and staff reductions because of budget cuts.

Deasy ordered the massive filing as a precaution, and also directed principals and other staff to find and review documentation going back decades. This extensive review has not resulted in any current staff being disciplined or removed from work pending further investigation, Deasy said.

Reports to the commission include suspected sexual molestation and such other misconduct as drug use, hitting a student, abusive language or cheating on standardized tests. Districts must report to the panel within 30 days when conduct results in a suspension of at least 10 days or a change in job status, such as a resignation or retirement. Sex or drug abuse charges involving minors must be reported within 10 days.

The audit was conducted by the California state auditor at the behest of the state Legislature’s audit committee, which is chaired by Assemblyman Ricardo Lara (D-Bell Gardens).

The audit exposed “some appalling information,” said Lara, whose district includes Miramonte in the Florence-Firestone area.

Teachers union President Warren Fletcher said Thursday that he shares the district’s goal of making student safety paramount, but he faulted Deasy, for example, for replacing the entire Miramonte staff from February through the end of the school year. The superintendent said he had done so to restore public confidence in the school. The teachers returned this fall, clear of any wrongdoing.

“The district’s response has been characterized by wild swings, between previous administrative failures of supervision, followed by extreme overreaction, such as the removal of 85 innocent teachers from Miramonte for over six months,” Fletcher said. “Every time the district overreacts it diverts resources that should have been used to investigate serious misconduct,” said the United Teachers Los Angeles president.

Since the Miramonte case broke, an employee accused of a misdeed is typically pulled quickly from a school and “housed” in an office while the case is resolved. In mid-November there were 298 “housed” employees. Before Berndt’s arrest, there were about 160.

By September, the district had paid $3 million in salaries to 20 employees whom the district has kept off campus the longest, including one employee removed for 4 1/2 years.

On average, these employees are in limbo for 127 days, the district said. The cost to replace a teacher with a substitute is either $173 or $274 a day depending on whether the substitute is working day to day or for a longer period.

If a substitute works enough days to qualify for benefits, the cost is about an additional $100 a day, according to L.A. Unified.

Not all delays are the fault of L.A. Unified, which can’t begin its own probe without clearance from law enforcement, auditors said.

The audit also faulted the state for having no mechanism to report non-teaching employees to a central agency. In L.A. Unified about 12% of those facing misconduct allegations have been employees other than teachers.

One such notable case also occurred at Miramonte.

In 2005, aide Ricardo Guevara was found guilty of lewd acts with children and sentenced to 15 years to life in prison. Previous allegations against Guevara had not resulted in his dismissal.

In the Berndt case, 126 students and 63 parents have filed claims for damages against L.A. Unified. There are also two lawsuits on behalf of 33 students and one involving 11 parents.

From Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES (KTLA) — Hundreds of L.A. Unified teachers accused of misconduct are spending their time in so-called “teacher jail,” and it’s costing the district a lot of money.

It’s the LAUSD’s response to the sex abuse scandal that rocked the district earlier this year, when former Miramonte Elementary teacher Mark Berndt was arrested.

Berndt was charged with molesting 23 of students after incriminating photos surfaced showing children blindfolded.

Another teacher, Paul Chapel, was arrested and later sentenced to prison for molesting children at Telfair Elementary in Pomona.

Since then, the L.A. Daily News reports, the district has started enforcing a zero-tolerance policy.

Teachers accused of inappropriate conduct are immediately removed from the classroom and put in “teacher jail” — basically, assigned to desk duty until the investigation is complete.

According to the Daily News, there are some 300 teachers assigned to office duty because of abuse complaints.

Most of the teachers are getting paid, so it’s costing the district about $1.4 million per month in salaries, as well as $865,000 a month in pay for substitute teachers.

The investigations can take as long as six months or more, according to the Daily News.

Teacher’s union president Warren Fletcher says that the process is a waste of money, and he also calls it a witch hunt.

“LAUSD is using the process to get rid of teachers they don’t like or don’t want… when there’s no reasonable belief… that any misconduct occurred,” he told the Daily News.

As an example, one teacher who was assigned to “teacher jail” complained that she was put on office duty for 10 weeks because she accidentally tapped a student on the stomach.

LAUSD Superintended John Deasy says the process is not a witch hunt. He says that it does come at a cost to taxpayers, but it’s necessary to keep students safe.

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