UPDATE: Sources familiar with the settlement said the district has agreed to pay a total of $29 million to this group of 58 students, an average of $500,000 each. Not all will receive the same amount.
After months of mediation with students and their families the Los Angeles Unified School District announced Tuesday it settled 58 lawsuits over allegations of misconduct by former Miramonte Elementary School teacher Mark Berndt. But nearly two-thirds of the 191 civil suits filed against the nation's second-largest school district in the case remain unresolved.
David Holmquist, the district's general counsel, would not reveal how much each family will be paid until the deal is approved by a judge, but did confirm that it is a double-digit multimillion-dollar settlement.
Holmquist said the settlement is not an admission of guilt by the district but rather an effort to help students and their families “who have suffered” to heal.
“We’re not admitting liability, but we realize it’s a tragic circumstance for sure,” he said. “It’s very emotional to go through a process like this. It’s an understatement to call it 'tough.'”
Berndt, now 61, taught at L.A. Unified’s Miramonte Elementary for more than 30 years. He was arrested in February after a yearlong investigation that was triggered when a photo lab worker told authorities about pictures Berndt brought in for processing: images of children with cockroaches on their faces, eating cookies topped with a white substance that was allegedly semen, sometimes bound and blindfolded. Berndt has been charged with 23 counts of lewd acts against children.
Frank Perez, who represents eight of the children whose cases were settled, called it a victory. Subjecting children to the litigation process can be damaging.
“It’s a very brutal process ," he said, "and it’s a hard decision to want to go through with it."
His clients first learned about the alleged abuse a year ago when Berndt was arrested.
“With respect to coming to a conclusion on this, the emotion has really been one of relief for their children,” Perez said.
Superior Court Judge John Wiley, who is overseeing the cases, has to approve the settlements before they become final.
Three law firms represent the 131 remaining claimants, which include students and parents. They pulled out of the mediation talks with the district in December, claiming the school district was not negotiating in good faith.
Attorney Brian Claypool, who represents 13 students and 19 parents, called those negotiations a “complete waste of time” and is hoping for a July trial date.
“We will prove that the district knowingly placed these children in risk of being abused by teachers” by failing to respond to allegations of abuse by Berndt decades earlier, Claypool said.
Berndt isn't the only Miramonte teacher in trouble. Martin Bernard Springer is awaiting trial on three felony counts of fondling a student.
The settlements will be funded by LAUSD’s liability fund and an insurance policy, according to Holmquist, though they have not yet contributed any money toward the payouts.