Education

Miramonte: LA school district's claim it shredded child abuse reports now in question

Miramonte Elementary School in Los Angeles.
Miramonte Elementary School in Los Angeles.
Krista Kennell/AFP/Getty Images

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Questions are being raised about the Los Angeles Unified School District's claim earlier this year that it shredded 20 years' worth of suspected child abuse reports in connection with the Miramonte abuse scandal.

In response to a judge's questions, about 100 current and former members of L.A. Unified's general counsel's office said they had no knowledge of the records being destroyed, and district officials have not answered similar questions posed by KPCC. 

In April, KPCC was the first to report that LAUSD officials said the suspected child abuse reports, or SCARs, were ordered destroyed in 2008 after the district's general counsel concluded it was not legally allowed to hold on to them. The records dated back to 1988, according to a district spokesman.

L.A. Unified made its comments about the documents after attorneys representing dozens of children suing the district over the actions of former Miramonte teacher Mark Berndt requested that the school district produce all of its suspected child abuse reports.

In November 2013, Berndt pleaded no contest to 23 counts of lewd acts upon a child and was sentenced to 25 years in state prison.

Since LAUSD's claim that it had destroyed the records, district officials said they subsequently discovered two sets of SCAR reports, involving hundreds of abuse allegations. Those discoveries prompted plaintiffs' attorneys in the Miramonte suit to ask L.A. Superior Court Judge Mary Strobel to find out what really happened to all of the reports.

Earlier this month, Strobel ordered L.A. Unified to ask approximately 100 current and former employees of the general counsel's office if they know:

The district did the polling via email Sept. 12, and according to a court document filed by L.A. Unified's attorneys last Friday, everyone said they did not know the answers to the questions, except for one employee on maternity leave who had not responded.  

KPCC has repeatedly asked the district for specifics on who ordered the documents destroyed and when, and who carried out the order. To date, L.A. Unified has not answered those questions. 

A KPCC public records request seeking all records related to the shredding of SCAR reports is still outstanding.

Last Friday's court filing by L.A. Unified said that two staffers had information about post-2002 SCARs, "and this led to discovering an additional 262 SCAR Reports that were never before located."

That news irritated plaintiffs' attorney John Manly. "They say they couldn't find child abuse records yet they now found hundreds," he said, asserting that this latest discovery just adds to the confusion over what happened to the thousands of suspected child abuse reports dating back to 1988.

This is not the first time L.A. Unified has gotten into trouble over its handling of evidence in the Miramonte civil suit. In May, district lawyers were fined $6,000 for not handing over hundreds of photographs of children L.A. Unified claimed it didn't have, but in fact did.

"You expect behavior like this from Enron," said Manly. "You don't expect this from a school district."

One of the two district staffers with knowledge of the newly-discovered post-2002 SCARs was Yolanda Hill, who said in a declaration that she has worked as a legal secretary in the general counsel's office for 18 years. Hill said that she reviewed SCAR reports and transferred basic information from them onto a spreadsheet.

Hill did not say how many reports she reviewed, but that after reviewing each one, she would place it in a small box. She believed she stopped working with them in 2007 or 2008, and at that point she recalled there being "between two and four of these small boxes of Suspected Child Abuse Reports." She added that "I do not know what happened to the SCAR Reports once I left to another work assignment."

Hill said "the vast majority" of the reports involved alleged neglect and physical abuse by "family members and not district employees."

The other staffer with knowledge of the post-2002 SCARs is Rosa Gianopoulos, a senior office technician in the general counsel's office, according to L.A. Unified. In the cover letter to its filing last Friday, the district's lawyers said a declaration from Gianopoulos was attached. But no declaration was attached; instead, the document said "declaration to follow."

Over the last several days, plaintiffs' attorneys pressed L.A. Unified's lawyers to produce the declaration. The district's attorneys provided an update on Thursday in the form of a message to Judge Strobel. It said while Gianopoulos "had no information regarding the disposal of any SCAR Reports, she did scan on to an LAUSD server and sort" the newly discovered SCAR documents.

The message went on to say that this past Monday, Gianopoulos provided L.A. Unified with a declaration describing how she carried out that work, "but we believe it to contain errors. Unfortunately, we did not have an opportunity to confer with Ms. Gianopoulos to make the appropriate corrections because she became ill on Monday, left to seek medical care and has not returned to work since." The note said she won't return to work until October 1.

Another plaintiffs' attorney, Luis Carrillo, will go to court Monday and ask Judge Strobel to compel the district to provide Gianopoulos' declaration. The district's lawyers said they will provide her statement if ordered to do so by the judge.

This story was updated on Sept. 26, 2014 to correct the number of counts to which Mark Berndt pleaded no contest.