Los Angeles school district settles teacher sex abuse suits for more than $180m

The revelations of the abuse by the third-grade teacher at Miramonte Elementary School in a working-class area of Los Angeles touched off protests by infuriated parents shortly after his arrest in January 2012. -- PHOTO: AFP
The revelations of the abuse by the third-grade teacher at Miramonte Elementary School in a working-class area of Los Angeles touched off protests by infuriated parents shortly after his arrest in January 2012. -- PHOTO: AFP

LOS ANGELES (REUTERS) - The Los Angeles school district has agreed to pay nearly US$140 million (S$180.4 million) to families of students subjected to sexual abuse by an elementary school teacher who infamously took bondage-style photos of some pupils, school officials said on Friday.

The district and attorneys for the families settled all remaining litigation in the case involving the teacher as jury selection was underway for a trial in some of the cases.

School officials had previously paid US$30 million to settle dozens of related lawsuits.

"Throughout this case, we have shared in the pain felt by these children, their families and the community,"Superintendent Ramon Cortines said in a statement.

Mark Berndt, the 63-year-old teacher at the centre of the litigation, pleaded no contest a year ago to 23 counts of lewd acts upon a child and was sentenced to 25 years in prison.

Investigators found he took bondage-style photographs of his young students, some with semen-laced cookies held to their blindfolded faces or cockroaches crawling on them.

The revelations of the abuse by the third-grade teacher at Miramonte Elementary School in a working-class area of Los Angeles touched off protests by infuriated parents shortly after his arrest in January 2012. The abuse came to light when a photo technician at a drugstore who processed the film Berndt had dropped off became suspicious of pictures with blindfolded children and notified police.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs said school administrators received previous indications of misconduct by Berndt, years before his arrest.

The latest settlements of nearly US$140 million and the previous agreements for US$30 million that the district reached in civil litigation over Berndt's actions involve a total of about 150 children who were pupils of Berndt from 2005 onward, a spokesman for the district said.

The children alleged that Berndt fed them cookies laced with semen, attorneys for the district said in a conference call.

The settlement announced on Friday allows the child plaintiffs to avoid the emotional turmoil of going through a series of trials that could have lasted years and would also have proved embarrassing for the district.

A judge will determine how to distribute the settlement money among the families of the roughly 80 children involved in the latest agreement, based on such factors as how badly they were emotionally scarred and what kind of therapy they will need, attorneys for the district said.