Lurid new Miramonte details revealed; LAUSD admits it destroyed abuse records
Former Miramonte Elementary School teacher Mark Berndt’s alleged sexual abuse went beyond what has been previously disclosed, and included "highly assaulting" touching of girls’ genitalia, inducing children to touch his genitalia, and exposing his genitalia to students, according to a judge’s summary of an L.A. Sheriff’s Department investigation.
The summary, included in a ruling by Superior Court Judge John Wiley Jr. also noted "a suggestion in the police report that Berndt watched videos of bondage of women, and that his taping of children was for Berndt some version of sexualized bondage."
Wiley’s summary of the Sheriff’s 512-page investigation into the Berndt case was included in his tentative ruling regarding redactions in the report, which is part of the evidence in a civil lawsuit against the L.A. Unified School District.
"Secret courts and secret decisions have never been the American way," Wiley said in court Wednesday.
Additionally, L.A. Unified spokesman Sean Rossall confirmed to KPCC that the school district destroyed records containing allegations of sexual abuse at L.A. public schools dating back to 1988. Earlier this month, plaintiff’s attorney John Manly alleged in court that the District had destroyed documents, accusing L.A. Unified of trying to orchestrate a "secret trial."
Plaintiff's lawyers have suggested that the destruction of the records makes it difficult to determine whether there were other reports of Berndt allegedly abusing children during his more than 30-year career.
While Manly could not talk about specifics in the case he did say, "I don’t think there’s any question that we don’t have the whole picture."
RELATED: Berndt pleads no contest, gets 25 years
Berndt pleaded no contest last November to 23 charges of lewd conduct upon a child, and was sentenced to 25 years in prison. He was accused in that case of feeding semen-laced cookies to children and of taking pictures of them, sometimes with tape over their eyes and mouths, sometimes with Madagascar cockroaches on their bodies.
Separately, one former student had alleged that Berndt had fondled her in 1993, but her case was dropped for insufficient evidence.
In his summary of the Sheriff’s report, Judge Wiley wrote that "Berndt touched students in many ways, ranging from highly assaulting touching of vaginas and female breasts to other contacts with less obviously abusive implications."
Berndt also "induced children to touch his penis, or his arms, or legs, or chest," Wiley wrote.
The judge said that Berndt did not photograph the abuse that involved genital touching.
After the initial scandal broke and Berndt was arrested in 2012, two former students said they had reported that Berndt appeared to touch himself inappropriately in class, and another former student said Berndt would sit on steps in shorts near the playground with his legs spread apart.
Judge Wiley’s summary said "Berndt exposed his genitalia to students and others, by sitting in short shorts without underwear and spreading his legs in front of students."
The Sheriff’s investigative report on the Berndt case contains some 600 photos and 260 single-spaced typed pages of witness interviews and related material, according to Wiley’s order.
"That is a lot of witness interviews, many more times than a typical police investigation," he wrote.
Tom Delaney, a lawyer representing L.A. Unified, argued against releasing the judge’s ruling, asserting that the release of Wiley’s summary of the Sheriff’s investigation would "taint the jury pool" for the trial.
Judge Wiley disagreed, saying, "When it comes to my reason for doing something …I think those need to be public." Wiley’s order noted that he will give 130 people who are named in the report an opportunity to keep their identities hidden.
Plaintiff's attorneys disparaged the school district’s arguments against releasing the judge’s ruling.
The judge’s summary of the sheriff’s investigation is "a snapshot of how horrible Mr. Berndt really is and gives you some level of understanding of what’s in these records," said Manly. "And the question you really need to ask yourself is why would a school district not want this to come out?"
Plaintiffs attorney Luis Carrillo spoke of "a pattern where the LAUSD has hidden documents and witnesses from us."
LAUSD: 'we didn't have a right to have' destroyed documents
In acknowledging the destruction of the old child abuse reports, L.A. Unified spokesman Rossall said "we felt we didn’t have a right to have them."
Most of the documents were generated by L.A. Unified’s now-defunct team called CARE – Child Abuse: Recognize and Eliminate. Operating from 1988-2002, the team worked to prevent and detect abuse in schools. Shayla Lever, the former director of CARE, told KPCC that all of her office's records were packed up and sent to the L.A. Unified’s general counsel in 2002.
For the next six years, L.A. Unified received additional reports of suspected child abuse, Rossall said. All of the documents were destroyed in 2008 when District lawyers interpreted a provision of the penal code to mean that "we shouldn’t have had them in the first place," he said.
The penal code section Rossall cited lists which agencies are permitted to possess sexual abuse reports that have been filed with law enforcement; school districts are not included in the list.
In addition, Rossall said the CARE team’s reports "were never a tool for the District to report and monitor suspected child abuse." He said L.A. Unified has always had a separate system to report possible abuse.
The District destroyed the documents "to ensure they weren’t inadvertently released or confidentiality was broken and that was really to protect the individuals reporting" the alleged abuses, said Rossall, adding that "the district was not tasked with maintaining these records. They were law enforcement records that the district was not in charge of."
Judge Wiley’s order on Wednesday was in response to plaintiff’s attorneys' request that all 2,791 redactions in the Sheriff’s report be removed. He proposed removing 1,540. On Thursday, lawyers will be back in court to further discuss the matter.
Judge Wiley stated that for now, the Sheriff’s report will not be made public.
L.A. Unified has paid nearly $30 million to settle 63 child abuse lawsuits. The current case involves another 71 children. Trial is scheduled to begin July 8th.
This story was amended on May 2, 2014 to clarify what is in the penal code section referred to by Sean Rossall.