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Miramonte Elementary scandal: LAUSD settled with Berndt in firing dispute

February 10, 2012 12:00:00 AM PST
Friday, the Los Angeles Unified School District confirmed that suspected child molester Mark Berndt was paid $40,000 in a settlement when the district tried to fire him.

Former Miramonte teacher Mark Berndt was arrested and charged with 23 counts of lewd acts on children ages 6 to 10. The investigation began after Berndt, a teacher at the school for 30 years, tried to develop photos of students, and a film processor at a CVS turned them over to police.

According to authorities, the first batch of photos showed children blindfolded with cockroaches on their faces and spoons full of semen in front of their mouths. Wednesday, police said they found 200 more pictures at the same CVS pharmacy's photo printing database, bringing the total number of photos to roughly 600.

The 61-year-old third-grade teacher was fired by the Los Angeles Unified School District when the investigation began. Berndt challenged his dismissal. That's when the LAUSD settled with Berndt for $40,000.

"I've made this very, very clear: I think that state law is a problem," said LAUSD Superintendent John Deasy.

Deasy says the district tried to fire Berndt when the investigators discovered the photographs last year. But because of current state law, Berndt was able to appeal his termination and allowed to resign and maintain his pension. In addition, the district had to pay his legal bills and back pay.

"I wish it were otherwise," said Deasy. "I think it should be otherwise. But we all follow the law until something else changes. And so if you actually want the person off the payroll, you settle."

A second teacher arrested in the Miramonte Elementary School sex scandal is out on bail, officials said. Martin Springer, 49, was arrested last week after two girls said he had fondled them in class in 2009. He was held on $300,000 bail. One of the two girls later decided to withdraw her accusation.

The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department said Springer posted bail at 2 a.m. Friday. He was fitted with a court-ordered ankle monitoring device before his release.

According to the L.A. County District Attorney's Office, Springer's release restrictions were: He must stay at least 100 yards away from victims and witnesses; stay 250 feet away from schools, parks, playgrounds or other areas where children are gathered; and he cannot be in the company of a child unless there is a responsible adult present; and he must wear a SCRAM tracking bracelet.

The alleged lewd conduct happened in the last three years when the girls were about 7 years old, according to investigators.

On Tuesday, the school board voted in favor of firing Springer, and he was formally charged with three felony counts of fondling a student. He pleaded not guilty to the charges.

The school district has since replaced the entire Miramonte Elementary faculty and staff with new employees.

Teachers union United Teachers Los Angeles says it was unfair to move the existing teachers permanently, but Deasy says the teachers will be allowed to return once the internal and criminal investigation at Miramonte is over.

"If there are no issues, your assignment is Miramonte," said Deasy. He acknowledged it could take until June to complete the investigation.

UTLA says it will file grievances against the district on behalf of all 85 Miramonte teachers that were reassigned. Those teachers are due to report to a new high school on Monday. The new high school is still under construction and has no students.

Meantime, some parents have been protesting by keeping their kids home from school. They're hoping to bring back teachers who were transferred from Miramonte when the entire school staff was replaced as authorities investigate the sex abuse charges.

The new staff includes 88 new teachers as well as a retired principal.

Only 68 percent of the Miramonte students showed up to school Thursday. Many of those who attended class spent part of the day writing goodbye letters to their former teachers.