Updated at: 12/06/2012 5:35 PM
By CHRISTINA HOAG
(AP) LOS ANGELES - The Los Angeles Unified School District hopes to settle 189 legal actions by late January in a case involving a former elementary teacher accused of lewd acts with students that were so shocking, they prompted the district to remove all employees at the school while it did a thorough investigation.
The number of claimants stemming from the case is unprecedented in the nation’s second-largest school district, where lawsuits allege officials did nothing to protect children from the Miramonte Elementary School teacher accused of feeding students semen-laced cookies in what he called "tasting games."
Former California Supreme Court Justice Cruz Reynoso is overseeing the mediation process that involves 16 law firms representing 126 students and 63 parents and guardians, said the district’s general counsel, David Holmquist.
Two lawyers representing 26 of the 189 students and parents announced Wednesday they were not participating in the mediation and were instead filing separate lawsuits. Lawyers Martha Escutia and John Manly filed four lawsuits this week, bringing the total number of suits against the district in the case to eight. They said they plan to file 22 more as soon as they can.
Holmquist said the district was taken aback by the lawyers’ action but said he still anticipated they would participate in the settlement, which could come within weeks. March is the outside deadline for the settlement to be reached, he said.
The district is focused on reaching an agreement "that makes sense, protects the students and restores trust," Holmquist said.
Gregory McNair, chief business and compliance counsel, said the district doesn’t want children traumatized by having them testify in court. "The litigation process can be a brutal process," he said.
Reynoso, currently a law professor emeritus at University of California, Davis, is being assisted in the case by two other retired judges. He is interviewing numerous families as part of the claim evaluation process, Holmquist said.
Settlement funds would be partially covered by an insurance policy and by the district’s liability fund, Holmquist noted.
The litigation stems from the January arrest of former Miramonte teacher Mark Berndt, who has pleaded not guilty to 23 counts of lewdness for allegedly feeding students semen-laced cookies over five years.
After his arrest, investigators found several hundred photos of children participating in Berndt’s "tasting games," which involved blindfolding children with cockroaches on their faces, biting into cookies laced with a milky-white substance and being spoon-fed a similar liquid. Investigators said the substance appeared to be Berndt’s semen.
In an unprecedented move, the district removed all employees at the school while it investigated how Berndt’s alleged actions went undetected for so long. The employees were allowed to return to the school, or others, this semester.
The district has assigned 16 psychiatric social workers to Miramonte and surrounding schools, where former students may be located, and has several support programs for parents, said Pia Escudero, director of school mental health and crisis counseling. Attendance at the school is 97 percent.
Lawyers Escutia and Manly said Wednesday they opted out of the mediation talks because the district had stonewalled them on handing over documents about other alleged cases of teacher sexual misconduct.
Holmquist and McNair denied that they held back any documents.
Contact the reporter at http://twitter.com/ChristinaHoag.
(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)