A Superior Court Judge has ordered the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) to pay a $6,000 penalty for denying it had photos that show alleged sexual abuse at Miramonte Elementary School.
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The ruling came Friday during a pre-trial hearing involving dozens of individual lawsuits alleging the district failed to protect students from Mark Berndt, a teacher for two decades at the Florence-Firestone area school. He agreed to leave the district in 2011 and is now in prison. Allegations were also made against another teacher, Martin Springer. The criminal case against him was dropped.
In seeking evidence for use at trial, during the so-called "discovery" phase, attorneys for children and family members suing the district had asked about the existence of photographic evidence. The original Sheriff's criminal investigation had been launched after a photo lab contacted authorities with concerns about images of children on film brought by Berndt to be developed.
LAUSD responded that it was "not aware of any responsive photographs." The district's formal reply went on to state that law enforcement, plaintiffs and claimants have provided some photos to the district, but that was not truthful or straightforward, and amounted to "discovery abuse," Judge John Wiley ruled.
The photos came up during the deposition of former LAUSD Risk Manager Gregg Breed.
"A truthful and straightforward response from LAUSD would have been, 'Yes, we know of hundreds of photographs about the Mark Berndt incident. The Sheriff gave us these pictures in 2011,'" wrote Judge Wiley in his proposed decision.
Plaintiffs attorneys had asked the court to order the district to pay $107,312.16, reflecting the cost of all the depositions taken without knowledge of the photos and some emails. But lacking them "did not impair Plaintiffs' ability to conduct all depositions," and Judge Wiley instead set the sanction at $6,000.
Ongoing Coverage: Miramonte School Investigation
A statement LAUSD issued after the ruling did not directly address the discovery abuse, but stated: "the school district is a committed community of educators that takes protecting students as one of its top priorities.
"Suggesting that we would do anything less ... is completely without merit."
Judge Wiley also ruled on several other motions. LAUSD had objected to the scheduling of depositions for two of its employees, paralegal Kimberly Towns, who verified discovery responses, and David Holmquist, who previously had served as Chief Risk Officer, but now, as General Counsel, is the district's top lawyer.
Additional briefing would be required before Judge Wiley would make a ruling, a district spokesman said.
On other issues involving privacy concerns raised by LAUSD, the district prevailed.
The deposition of Dan Scott, the Sheriff's Detective Sgt. who oversaw the Miramonte investigation, will remain sealed, as will the Sheriff's 512 page report.
"We are pleased that Judge Wiley agreed with law enforcement and the school district in ensuring that confidential information remained such. Attempts by plaintiffs' counsel to release this information plublicly doesn't serve the students or families involved," reads in part a statement issued by district spokesman Sean Rossal.
Plaintiffs' lawyers also came in for criticism from the judge. "At the onset, the unprofessional conduct of plaintiffs' counsel antagonized relations with the Sheriff," wrote Judge Wiley. He went on to state that the attorneys "apologized and vowed to do better."
Berndt pleaded no contest in November to 23 counts of lewd conduct involving his students and received a sentence of 25 years.
Prosecutors alleged that Berndt, 63, spoon-fed his semen to blind-folded students as part of what he told them was a " tasting game." Some photos showed children with a giant cockroach on their faces.
Plaintiffs' attorneys have raised the possibility some of the photos obtained by the Sheriff's Department may depict as many as one hundred additional victims who have yet to be identified. In order to protect their privacy, Judge Wiley has established a procedure for attorneys to view the photos in judge's chambers. Faces would be obscured in photos before they could be shown in open court or placed in the court file open to the public.
A year ago, LAUSD agreed to civil settlements with 58 individual claims that could cost the district and its insurors as much as $30 million. The current combined case in Judge Wiley's court was brought by complaining families represented by three legal teams which did not reach settlement agreements.
Berndt's attorney, Manny Medrano, has repeatedly denied that his client ever physically abused any student.
The following is the full statement from Sean Rossall, a spokesperson for the office of general counsel and outside attorneys representing the school district, regarding the rulings:
“We appreciate Judge Wiley’s thoughtful consideration of the privacy issues before him. Since first learning about the allegations against Mr. Berndt, we have endeavored to ensure that the children and families involved have the privacy needed to heal. We are pleased that Judge Wiley agreed with law enforcement and the school district in ensuring that confidential information remained such. Attempts by plaintiffs’ counsel to release this information publicly doesn’t serve the students or families involved. We hope that plaintiffs’ counsel will respect the court’s decision.
“As it relates to the additional rulings, we respectfully disagree with the court’s decision. However, we appreciate the judge taking our objections under consideration before making a final decision on the majority of them. The school district is a committed community of educators that takes protecting students as one of its top priorities. Suggesting that we would do anything less is completely without merit. Consistently, the school district has and will continue to act transparently and appropriately in all matters related to this case.”
John Cádiz Klemack contributed to this report.