After nearly a week with no response to our inquiries about allegations the Los Angeles Unified School District destroyed documents that may have held key evidence in child abuse cases within the district, a spokesman admits the documents no longer exist.
In an interview with KPCC, Sean Rossall of Cerrell Associates, the public relations representative hired by one of the law firms representing the district to exclusively handle media inquiries about the Miramonte child abuse scandal, says the documents were destroyed sometime in 2008.
Attorneys for the victims of the Miramonte case have based much of their attention on claims LAUSD had known about prior sexual abuse claims against Mark Berndt. This revelation, first reported by NBC4 last week now has attorneys calling foul on the district for destroying what they believe was key evidence to their case.
"This is devastating," said victims' attorney Brian Claypool, who is calling on the United States Department of Justice to begin a federal criminal investigation into LAUSD. "It's been our goal from day one to prove a pattern and practice of LAUSD harboring child predators. Their intentional destruction of crucial child abuse reports from 15 years demonstrates a patent cover up."
Rossall tells KPCC "we felt we didn't have a right to have them," regarding the destroyed documents, claiming all the documents were destroyed in 2008 when District lawyers believed a section of the California Penal Code meant they "shouldn't have had them in the first place."
KPCC says the penal code Rossall cites only refers to disclosure, not possession, of confidential child abuse reports. Rossall called the reports "law enforcement records the district was not in charge of."
Attorney John Manly, one of eight attorneys representing Miramonte victims calls Rossall's statements "transparently ridiculous."
This new admission on the part of the District comes on the heels of a new order by the judge handling the Miramonte civil cases.
Superior Court Judge John Wiley, Jr. issued a ruling Tuesday that will open the door to unredacted information gathered by Los Angeles County Sheriff Investigators during its two year investigation of teacher Mark Berndt.
Berndt was convicted of 23 counts of lewd acts with children in November 2013, after evidence showed he spoon-fed students his own semen. But new details released by Wiley show much more details once withheld from the public.
"The main purpose of this ruling," writes Wiley, "is to protect children." Judge Wiley summarized some 512-pages of investigation reports from the LASD that included six DVDs containing 600 photos of students taken by Berndt.
Wiley wrote that Berndt "touched students in many ways, ranging from highly assaulting touching of vaginas and female breasts to other contacts with less obviously abusive implications."
Get Los Angeles's latest local news on crime, entertainment, weather, schools, COVID, cost of living and more. Here's your go-to source for today's LA news.
The summary continues that "Berndt exposed his genitalia to students and others, by sitting in short shorts without underwear and spreading his legs in front of students," and that Berndt would induce children to touch his penis, arms, legs or chest.
Wiley says he looked at the redacted version of the investigation as well as the unredacted version and relayed a story of one victim who was interviewed by investigators who did not know she was a victim. The judge explained that she did not believe she had eaten any of the semen-laced cookies, but when presented with the photo evidence, she was instantly filled with shock and surprise and began to cry saying, "That's me! That's me. Oh no! Oh no!"
Questions regarding privacy have arisen in these documents as well, the judge saying those who were interviewed by deputies and are not part of any litigation have a higher value of constitutional privacy. Wiley's summary states that some 130 people named in the report will be given an opportunity to keep their identities hidden.
"We appreciate Judge Wiley's time and thoughtful response," Rossall said in a statement. "We are confident in his ability to work with counsel to ensure that confidential information, including the names of children and potential victims, remains private and protected. And, at the same time, ensure that the parties receive the information needed to prepare for trial."
LAUSD attorney Tom Delaney argued the Court should not release the judge's ruling, claiming that the release of the judge's summary would "taint the jury pool" for the trial. The judge denied the request.
Luis Carrillo, another attorney for some of the Miramonte victims, called the move a step forward for the public. "The judge has given the community the true story of how LAUSD failed miserably to protect the children," Carillo said. "That is why the attorneys for the LAUSD did not want the judge to release his ruling."
As the civil case moves closer to a July trial, victims' attorney John Manly says LAUSD is attempting to hide important information from tax payers.
"The District's attempt to hide this order from the public reflects a deep concern at the highest levels of the District," Manly said. "That the public may learn the truth about Mark Berndt and destroy the fictional story LAUSD created to deceive the public about what they knew and when they knew it."
LA Unified has already paid out nearly $40 million in settlements of 63 child abuse cases involving Berndt and teacher Martin Springer (Springer's criminal charges were dropped last year). The current case involves another 71 children with the first trial set for July 8th.