LA schools settle claims over lewd 'tasting games'
LOS ANGELES (AP) - The Los Angeles school district will pay millions of dollars to settle claims and lawsuits filed by students and families from an elementary school where a third-grade teacher was accused of spoon-feeding children semen in what he called "tasting games," lawyers in the cases said Tuesday.
District officials did not reveal the total amount of the settlement, but attorney Raymond Boucher, who represents several Miramonte Elementary School students, said each claimant will receive $470,000.
District General Counsel David Holmquist said the settlement covers 58 of the 191 claims and lawsuits filed by students and parents against the district after the January 2012 arrest of former third-grade teacher Mark Berndt on 23 charges of lewd behavior spanning five years at Miramonte.
A few of the cases involved another Miramonte teacher, Martin Springer, who was charged with lewd acts on a child in a case involving a second-grader that authorities said was fondled in class in 2009.
The accusation surfaced after Berndt's arrest, Holmquist said.
The 58 people involved in the settlement are all students, he said.
Prosecutors said in Berndt's "tasting games" he fed students his semen on cookies and by spoon, sometimes blindfolding and photographing them. Berndt, who taught for 32 years at the South Los Angeles school, has pleaded not guilty in the criminal case.
Springer has also pleaded not guilty.
The allegations against Berndt came to light when a drugstore photo technician noticed dozens of odd photos of blindfolded children and reported them to authorities. Investigators said they discovered a plastic spoon in Berndt's classroom trash bin that was found to contain traces of semen.
Boucher, who represents 13 of the 58 students in the settlement, said proving some of the claims would have been a problem at trial.
Some children did not have photographs of themselves eating the cookies laced with a milky white substance, or of being fed spoonfuls of it, he said.
In addition, there was no way to prove the substance in photos was semen, he added.
Parents also understood that with so many claims, a jury verdict could bankrupt the district, he added.
"We had to do a balancing act and we understood, if you go that second route and you wind up (with the district) in bankruptcy, these clients will never receive compensation for what they've been through," Boucher said.
Frank Perez, an attorney representing eight students, said parents chose to settle rather than put their children through the emotional upheaval of litigation and to put the case behind them.
Other attorneys blasted the settlement amount as paltry and said they would proceed with their cases.
"This is lifelong trauma," lawyer Brian Claypool said.
Attorney John Manly said the district has not yet explained how the alleged incidents went undetected for so long.
"The district got a great deal today," he said. "There's not been a single explanation of who knew what when."
The case led to a wide-ranging overhaul of how the nation's second-largest school district handles allegations of sexual abuse after it was revealed that previous complaints about Berndt's behavior were ignored.
It also shined a light on how slowly state officials act to censure teachers and led to a flurry of allegations of teacher-student sex abuse in the district and in other school systems.
Shortly after Berndt's arrest, the school district temporarily removed all 76 of the school's teachers along with staff and administrators, putting them on leave and having them report to an empty high school nearby.
Six months later, when the new school year began, 43 of them returned to a restructured Miramonte with a new principal. The rest either retired or went to new schools.
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