Jury selection resumed this week in the first lawsuits stemming from the sex abuse scandal at Miramonte Elementary School, even as settlement discussions continued.
Attorneys for the Los Angeles Unified School District and former students of teacher Mark Berndt—who was sentenced to 25 years in prison after pleading no contest to 23 counts of lewd conduct with a child between 2005-10—met Monday afternoon for settlement talks but emerged without a deal.
Talks were continuing, with the LAUSD board expected to discuss the cases in closed session this afternoon.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge John Shepard Wiley has been urging the attorneys to try to resolve the case without a trial. But with no settlement in place, jury selection began Monday morning. About 75 prospective panelists were screened for their ability to serve on a three-month trial, and the pool was narrowed to about 20.
The trial involves three former Miramonte students, although dozens of other cases are still pending.
The district has already settled more than 60 claims for about $30 million over the abuse.
Following Monday’s court action, attorney Luis Carrillo, who represents some of the Miramonte students and their families, said he wants to take the case to trial.
“We’re anxious. We want to get in front of a jury, a representative jury so that the community can see 30 years of abuse,” he said.
Attorneys contend the district should be held responsible for Berndt’s actions, alleging district officials were aware of complaints about his behavior for years.
Sean Andrade, an attorney for the district, issued a statement saying the district is hoping for “fruitful” settlement discussions with the plaintiffs’ attorneys, but if the case goes to trial, he said “we remain committed to trying these matters in a sensitive and respectful manner.”
Sheriff’s officials said the investigation of Berndt began when a film processor turned over more than 40 photographs of children in a classroom, with their eyes blindfolded and mouths covered in tape. Some of the pictures showed Berndt with his arm around the children or with his hand over their mouths, according to the Sheriff’s Department.
A sheriff’s sergeant said some of the photographs “depicted girls with what appeared to be a blue plastic spoon, filled with an unknown clear/white liquid substance, up to their mouths as if they were going to ingest the substance.” Some photos also showed children with a large roach on their faces, sheriff’s officials said.
Sheriff’s officials said detectives found a blue plastic spoon and an empty container in the trash in Berndt’s classroom. Both items tested positive for semen, and DNA testing matched it to Berndt, according to the Sheriff’s Department.