Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Mark Berndt: Teacher Accused of Playing Sex Games with Kids

Fired with Benefits

Berndt's attorney, Victor Acevedo
Berndt's attorney, Victor Acevedo

Once they were tipped off by that photo processor, cops quickly identified 23 of the children in the photos and began interviewing them and their parents, as well as other current and former students plus teachers and other staff members. The kids ranged from seven to ten years old at the time the photos were snapped in a period spanning 2008-2010. Twenty-one of the 23 identified children are girls. They easily zeroed in on Miramonte's Mark Berndt as the alleged tormentor.

As a matter of course, police wanted to keep the investigation quiet while they gathered evidence and interviewed witness — but the district had to get Berndt away from the kids.

The Board of Education fired Mark Berndt in February 2011, as soon as they learned that the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department was investigating him.

He fought to get back on the payroll.

In response, LA Unified offered Berndt some $40,000 — four months' back pay and reimbursement for the cost of the health benefits that he'd been paying during that time. He would continue to get a $4,000 per month in health insurance and a pension for the rest of his life. The monetary offer was not presented to the seven members of the district's elected Board of Education; the legal department made the decision on its own. Berndt accepted the financial terms and agreed to resign in June 2011.

Facing furious criticism over paying off an alleged pervert, LA Unified general counsel David Holmquist has explained that the district made that payout decision because they were not able to conduct their own investigation into Berndt's behavior while the Sheriff's Department's investigation was ongoing. The district did not at that point have the information it would need to fire Berndt, so it made the best deal it deemed possible in order to get rid of him quickly and relatively inexpensively. Holmquist and his colleagues continue to maintain that it was cheaper to pay Berndt than to fire him: Disputed firings can cost the district half as much as half a million dollars and they typically take several years to resolve.

But Dan Basalone, a former LA principal and a former official of the Associated Administrators of Los Angeles, told LA Weekly that the district could have simply sent Berndt home with pay during the investigation, then easily used the Sheriff's Department's results to definitively fire him, sparing the school district and its taxpayers the ongoing payments funding an alleged criminal's retirement.

Asked about these developments, LA teachers union president Warren Fletcher blamed the district for its failure to supervise schools.

Critics note too that quietly fired teachers often can find employment in other districts, since the deals forcing them out of one school then leave no public record of their transgressions, and the infractions sometimes don't show enough evidence for criminal prosecution. In taking the easy way out in getting rid of a problem teacher, the BOE potentially puts other students at risk.

LA Unified is still figuring out how to deal with dangerous teachers.

The Fallout

In February 2012, spurred by the Mark Berndt scandal, Los Angeles Unified Superintendent John Deasy pledged to review the district's misconduct cases. His staff will review personnel files from the last 4 years, watching not only for sexual misconduct allegations like those against Berndt, but also for problems like excessive absenteeism. The district will report each incident to the state.

Meanwhile, Republican lawmakers, Democratic Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and the Board of Education are each seeking changes in state law to make it easier to fire teachers accused of sexual misconduct, and to withhold retirement benefits from those convicted. These new regulations would also give the Board of Education more authority over dismissing teachers, a process that, if a teacher appeals, is currently overseen by a panel made up of two teachers and an administrative law judge.

The Board of Education passed resolutions to this effect on March 20, 2012. The board, led by president Monica Garcia, also began drafting new rules on how and when to inform parents about accused teachers.

By the end of March, the school district announced a new policy: If a teacher is removed from classrooms under allegations of sexual misconduct, parents will be notified within 72 hours. A previous policy instated in 2009 did not demand notification, much less specify a timeline, and it said only that the decision was the responsibility of senior officials. A 2006 policy had mandated notification only of the parents of those children believed to be direct victims. The district still does not have a notification policy when it comes to allegations against non-teaching staff members.

But changes are already happening at Miramonte Elementary — even as more trouble comes to light.

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