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Tuesday, October 25, 2016

By Howard Blume, Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES — Previously undisclosed accusations against former Miramonte Elementary School teacher Mark Berndt reveal a more widespread pattern of alleged abuse, with more than 100 possible victims, including some children who said Berndt molested them, according to court documents.

The new allegations about Berndt are included in a 512-page report based on a two-year inquiry by the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department. The report is confidential, but was summarized by Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge John Shepard Wiley in a ruling during a pretrial hearing this week.

These are the first public allegations that the veteran elementary teacher sexually abused students. Wiley indicated that Berndt touched them in a sexual manner and exposed himself. According to the sheriff’s report, he also urged students to touch him, Wiley said.

Berndt’s attorney Manny Medrano said his client is not guilty of the broader abuse alleged in the sheriff’s investigation.

The Miramonte scandal was the biggest child abuse case in the history of the Los Angeles Unified School District. Following Berndt’s arrest on lewd conduct charges in 2012, Superintendent John Deasy closed the campus for two days and reopened it with an entirely new faculty and staff. The district already has paid about $30 million in settlements to 63 children and their families along with millions in legal fees and other costs.

Berndt, 63, was accused of spoon-feeding his semen to blindfolded students as part of what he is said to have called a tasting game. The evidence included photos of students apparently engaged in these acts. He pleaded no contest in November to 23 counts of lewd conduct and received a sentence of 25 years. Berndt’s plea aborted a criminal trial.

Deputy District Attorney Alison Meyers, who handled the Berndt case, said prosecutors were satisfied with achieving a 25-year prison term, which she said virtually is a life sentence. Although additional allegations emerged after the initial charges, prosecutors focused instead on plea bargain negotiations.

Still, 60 former students and about 40 parents are seeking damages in civil cases; the first trial is scheduled for July.

Plaintiffs’ lawyers have been battling L.A. Unified and the Sheriff’s Department for access to the law enforcement inquiry and other materials. The litigation prompted another disclosure this week: The school system in 2008 destroyed about 2,000 reports containing abuse allegations.

The documents are copies of the Suspected Child Abuse Report, which describe alleged incidents in which a child may have been harmed. District employees are required to report suspected abuse, and these forms are submitted confidentially to the police or the L.A. County Department of Children and Family Services. From the late 1980s through 2008, employees were asked to provide copies to the district as well, said L.A. Unified spokesman Sean Rossall.

But in 2008, officials determined that state law banned them from possessing these forms because of privacy rules; they ordered them destroyed, Rossall said. He added that essential information should have been fully duplicated within internal district reports.