The Los Angeles school district is to pay out millions of dollars in claims settlements after an elementary school teacher allegedly spoon-fed pupils his semen during “tasting games”.
Mark Berndt, who taught at Miramonte Elementary School for 32 years, is also accused of blindfolding his eight and nine-year-old students, feeding them semen spread on cookies and photographing them while they ate.
Berndt’s alleged “tasting games” only come to light after a photo developer noticed hundreds of images of blindfolded children, some eating a milky white substance, on his camera.
The developer reported Berndt to the authorities, who say that during an investigation they discovered a plastic spoon in Berndt's classroom rubbish bin that was found to contain traces of semen.
Berndt was later hit with 23 charges of lewd behaviour over a period of five years. He denies the charges.
The revelation that the LA school district will be hit with massive bills comes after attorney Raymond Boucher, who represents several Miramonte Elementary School students, said each claimant will receive $470,000. District officials did not reveal the total amount of the settlement, however.
District General Counsel David Holmquist said the settlement covers 58 of the 191 claims and lawsuits filed by students and parents against the district after Berndt’s arrest.
A few of the cases involved another Miramonte teacher, Martin Springer, who was charged with lewd acts on a child in a case involving a second-grader allegedly fondled in class in 2009.
The Springer accusation surfaced after Berndt's arrest and he has also pleaded not guilty to the charges.
Boucher, who represents 13 of the 58 students in the settlement, said proving some of the claims would have been a problem at trial.
Some children did not have photographs of themselves eating the cookies laced with a milky white substance, or of being fed spoonfuls of it, he said. In addition, there was no way to prove the substance in photos was semen, he added.
Parents also understood that with so many claims, a jury verdict could bankrupt the district, he added.
“We had to do a balancing act and we understood, if you go that second route and you wind up (with the district) in bankruptcy, these clients will never receive compensation for what they've been through,” Boucher said.
Frank Perez, an attorney representing eight students, said parents chose to settle rather than put their children through the emotional upheaval of litigation and to put the case behind them.
Other attorneys blasted the settlement amount as paltry and said they would proceed with their cases.
“This is lifelong trauma,” lawyer Brian Claypool said.
Attorney John Manly said the district has not yet explained how the alleged incidents went undetected for so long.
“The district got a great deal today,” he said. “There's not been a single explanation of who knew what when.”
The case led to a wide-ranging overhaul of how the second-largest US school district handles allegations of sexual abuse after it was revealed that previous complaints about Berndt's behaviour were ignored.
It also shined a light on how slowly state officials act to censure teachers and led to a flurry of allegations of teacher-student sex abuse in the district and in other school systems.
Shortly after Berndt's arrest, the school district temporarily removed all 76 of the school's teachers along with staff and administrators, putting them on leave and having them report to an empty high school nearby.
Six months later, when the new school year began, 43 of them returned to a restructured Miramonte with a new principal. The rest either retired or went to new schools.