Miramonte Elementary teacher Mark Berndt. This photo was released by lawyers representing three alleged victims. They've filed a claim in preparation for a suit against L.A. Unified.
The Los Angeles Unified School District agreed last June to pay about $40,000 to settle its dismissal case against former Miramonte Elementary teacher Mark Berndt, who has since been charged with 23 counts of lewd conduct, including spoon-feeding his semen to children.
The District suspended the former Miramonte Elementary School third-grade teacher last February, and initiated steps to fire him. According to district documents, the LAUSD had outlined three causes for Berndt's immediate dismissal and suspension in February: unprofessional conduct, immoral conduct and evident unfitness for service. Berndt fought the dismissal, taking it to the District's Office of Administrative Hearings.
In March, an attorney with Trygstad, Schwab & Trygstad, the firm representing Berndt, responded to the LAUSD's charges, arguing that the accusations are so “indefinite and uncertain” that she cannot prepare a defense, that Berndt is “fit to teach,” and the “charges fail to state any facts and are conclusive in nature,” according to the documents.
The case ended before going to a formal hearing when Berndt resigned in June. The District agreed to pay Berndt nearly $24,000 in backpay from the date of his suspension, allowing him to retain his lifetime health-benefits. He also received $16,000 to pay his legal fees, according to LAUSD settlement documents obtained in a joint investigation by KPCC and NBC4.
"We have no control over whether an employee in the dismissal process can resign or not," said LAUSD general counsel David Holmquist "That's completely up to them."
The District decided to pay Berndt the retroactive salary and attorneys' fees to avoid potentially greater costs down the road, said Holmquist. He said that if the District had refused to pay, Berndt could have gone to Superior Court seeking the money, and an eventual ruling against the District could have cost LAUSD even more.
Superintendent John Deasy said he was not familiar with the settlement documents, but that everybody appeals a dismissal. “I don’t authorize settlements, the legal department does with the Board,” Deasy said.
It is not unusual for the board to settle dismissal cases, which are often appealed by teachers and can drag on for years.
Two of the LAUSD's seven charges against Berndt had not previously been publicized: that he "allowed himself to be blindfolded," and that he "allowed himself to have tape placed over his mouth." The other charges included the now well-known allegations that he blindfolded students, placed tape over their mouths, andspoon-fed them "an unknown cloudy-colored liquid substance," and fed them cookies with that same substance on them.
KPCC received the documents from the Office of Administrative Hearings after submitting a public records request. Only the first and last pages of the five-page settlement were included. The office does not have a full copy of the agreement, said Monica Hassan, of the Department of General Services, acting spokeswoman for the OAH. KPCC is seeking the full agreement from the school district and Berndt’s attorney, who could not be immediately reached for comment.
Ricardo Duran, a spokesman for CalSTRS, said Berndt will continue to receive his pension regardless of how he left the district or whether he is convicted of the alleged crimes.
"Unfortunately, the law constrains us in that respect," Duran said. "There's a section in the education code that tells us that you can't take away somebody's pension, the only exception being is if the pension was obtained fraudulently or if you attach it for child or spousal support."
Berndt has been receiving $3,891.17 per month in pretax benefits since his official retirement date of July 1.
While Berndt will continue to receive his health benefits, Holmquist said the district is looking at negotiating a change in the rules with the teachers' union for educators accused of such crimes.
On Thursday, Miramonte Elementary School students returned to school after two days off and were greeted with an entirely new staff of teachers and a counselor in every classroom.
Deasy told parents at a Monday night meeting at a South Los Angeles high school that drastic measures were necessary because of what had happened at the school. He said the district was still trying to determine how no one had reported what was happening in Berndt's classroom.