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L.A. School District Sued Over Sexual Abuse of Students

Jan. 31 (Bloomberg) -- The Los Angeles Unified School District was sued for failing to prevent the alleged sexual abuse of students by an elementary school teacher who was arrested last year.

Students who claim they were abused, along with their guardians, filed two complaints today in California state court in Los Angeles. The plaintiffs accuse the school district of negligence and sexual harassment and seek unspecified damages.

Mark Berndt, who taught at Miramonte Elementary School for more than 30 years, was arrested a year ago and charged with sexually molesting 23 boys and girls from 2005 to 2010. All of the alleged victims were 7 to 10 years old, Los Angeles County prosecutors said at the time of the arrest.

The school district, the second-largest in the U.S., faces more than two dozen lawsuits stemming from the alleged abuses at the school. According to the complaints filed today, two students reported to a school counselor as far back as 1990 that Berndt masturbated behind his desk during class time and were told not to “make up stories.”

Berndt, 62, was arrested after he asked a film processor to develop photographs he took of students with their eyes blindfolded and mouths covered by tape. Some of the photographs showed students with a blue plastic spoon, filled with a “white murky liquid substance,” near their mouths, according to the complaints.

No Settlements

The school district hasn’t seen the new complaints and is working with plaintiffs’ lawyers to resolve previously filed lawsuits, Sean Rossall, a spokesman for the district, said in a telephone interview. None of the cases have settled, he said.

On Jan. 24, Los Angeles police arrested a former teacher at George De La Torre Jr. Elementary School in Wilmington, which is also part of the Los Angeles Unified School District. Robert Pimentel was charged with 15 counts, including sexual abuse and lewd act on a child, according to a statement by the school district.

Martha Escutia, a former state senator who is now a lawyer representing sexual-abuse victims, in a Jan. 28 statement called for an independent investigation in what she said was “a pattern of sexual abuse disproportionally perpetrated against young Latino students” at schools within the Los Angeles Unified School District.

Sex Abusers

“We need to know why LAUSD is unable to protect children and why a majority of these sex abusers end up teaching at poor Latino schools,” Escutia said in the statement.

David Holmquist, the district’s general counsel, said in a Jan. 28 response to Escutia’s assertions that LAUSD was committed to the safety of all of its students. The district has engaged in an “extensive internal and external review of how it handles and responds to claims of misconduct” in the past year, he said.

The cases are J.A. v. Los Angeles Unified School District, BC500172, and V.C. v. Los Angeles Unified School District, BC500173, California Superior Court, Los Angeles County (Los Angeles).

To contact the reporter on this story: Edvard Pettersson in the Los Angeles federal courthouse at epettersson@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Michael Hytha at mhytha@bloomberg.net.

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