It’s going to be tough picking the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) scandal of the year after the educators agreed to pay $139 million—about 2% of its budget—to settle a teacher molestation lawsuit involving 81 students.
The agreement, believed the largest of its kind ever, ended litigation just as jury selection in the Los Angeles Superior Court trial began.
The district has already paid out $30 million to settle another 65 cases stemming from the arrest in 2012 of Miramonte Elementary third-grade teacher Mark Berndt. The 32-year veteran of the South Los Angeles school pleaded no contest to 23 counts of lewd conduct last November and was sentenced to 25 years in prison.
Berndt, who is in his 60s, was accused of blindfolding the mostly Hispanic students and feeding them semen in spoons and baked into cookies. A CVS photo processor saw pictures he had taken of his exploits and called the authorities. The district shut down the school and shipped all the students to other elementaries while it sorted things out.
Six months later, 43 of the school’s 71 teachers returned and the rest either retired or went to another school. The entire staff at Miramonte was let go.
Berndt’s arrest wasn’t the first time he had been suspected of sex crimes.
A parent told the school principal in 1983 that the teacher dropped his trousers during a museum field trip. Berndt apologized for his “baggy shorts” and escaped unscathed. Two teachers told school officials in the mid-90s he exposed himself to students. A few girls complained around that time that he was abusing himself in class, but they weren’t taken seriously.
Berndt was the target of a Sheriff’s Department investigation in 1994 after a mother reported that her daughter complained about him four months after an alleged incident. But the investigation was dropped for lack of information. LAUSD did not have any documentation of the allegation.
Lawyers said they had evidence of dozens of incidents involving Berndt between 1983 and 2009. But their task was complicated because LAUSD purged 2,000 abuse reports from its records in 2008, ostensibly because of privacy concerns.
LAUSD has not had a good year. The $1-billion iPads-for-all was a disaster and put on hold. The district’s new all purpose computer system for tracking everything from scheduling to grades, crashed and burned. And Superintendent John Deasy resigned under fire.
There is still more than a month left in the year, so technically there could still be another competitor for LAUSD Scandal of the Year. But it looks like implementation of Common Core, the reworking of the entire school curriculum, won’t be a candidate until 2015.