Los Angeles schools settle teacher lewdness claims for $34m

LOS ANGELES (AP) - The Los Angeles school district will pay about US$27.2 million (S$33.9 million) to settle dozens of legal actions related to an abuse case in which a former teacher is charged with lewd acts on students over five years.

District officials did not reveal the amount of the settlement, but lawyer Raymond Boucher, who represents several students, said on Tuesday each claimant would receive US$470,000.

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 the January 2012 arrest of former teacher Mark Berndt on 23 charges of lewd behaviour. The 58 people involved in the settlement are all students, he said.

Prosecutors said Berndt played "tasting games" with students in which he fed them his semen on cookies and by spoon, sometimes blindfolding and photographing them. Berndt, who taught for 32 years at a Los Angeles school, has pleaded not guilty in the criminal case.

The allegations came to light when a drugstore photo technician noticed dozens of odd photos of blindfolded children and reported them to the authorities. Investigators said they discovered a plastic spoon in Berndt's classroom trash bin that was found to contain traces of semen.

The case led to a wide-ranging overhaul of how the nation's second-largest school district handles allegations of sexual abuse after it was revealed that previous complaints about Berndt's behaviour were ignored.

Mr Boucher 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.

Mr 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.