Education

Miramonte: 5 things to watch for as sex abuse civil trial begins

Former Miramonte Elementary School teacher Mark Berndt, at his change-of-plea hearing in Nov. 2013.
Former Miramonte Elementary School teacher Mark Berndt, at his change-of-plea hearing in Nov. 2013.
Damian Dovarganes/AP

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Trial is scheduled to begin Tuesday in a big civil lawsuit filed on behalf of 70 Miramonte Elementary School students over the Los Angeles Unified School District's handling of former Miramonte teacher and convicted child molester Mark Berndt. 

Berndt is serving up to 25 years in state prison on child molestation charges. He fed his students cookies laced with semen and is accused of molesting some of them.

A mandatory settlement conference is scheduled for Tuesday morning. If an agreement cannot be reached, jury selection will proceed, a process that is expected to take three days. That timeline suggests opening arguments would start after Veteran's Day.

The trial is expected to last six to eight weeks.

Here are five things to watch for during the trial:

1. Arguments over the cookies

Expect to see a battle of experts arguing over whether Mark Berndt committed sexual abuse when he fed students  semen-laced cookies.  The plaintiffs' attorneys are expected to argue it is sexual abuse and their clients have suffered permanent psychological problems. L.A. Unified's experts have already testified in depositions that the feeding of the cookies, while inappropriate, may not constitute actual sex abuse - and that can make a big difference when it comes to determining monetary damages.

2. Document Shredding

The plaintiffs' attorneys have put on the witness list L.A. Unified employees who may have knowledge of the shredding of thousands of suspected child abuse reports. L.A. Unified said earlier this year that it had destroyed 20 years' worth of reports. Questions later arose as to whether the documents were shredded. Plaintiffs' attorneys want to know what happened and, if documents were destroyed, when did it happen and who authorized it? 

3. What did John Deasy know? 

Deasy had been superintendent for less than six months when one of LAUSD's  largest child abuse scandals erupted on his watch. He removed every employee from Miramonte in an attempt to find out what happened. What did he know, when did he know it, and what did district officials know? The answers to those questions could be crucial to determining whether LAUSD was negligent.

4. Dueling teachers  

Expect testimony from two former Miramonte teachers who have already testified under oath that they had complained about the odd behavior of Mark Berndt and other teachers at the school.  Also expect to hear from former principals and teachers who tell a very  different story.  The jury will have to decide who to believe.

5. "Got Mark" 

The Los Angeles Sheriff's Department investigative file on the Miramonte case contains photos, interview notes and other evidence about what Berndt did. It's been sealed, but some of the report most likely will be presented in court. Expect to see a photo of Mark Berndt allegedly wearing a "Got Mark" T-shirt.