National Public Radio Los Angeles affiliate KPCC reported this week about a civil trial in 2013 during which Los Angeles Unified School District lawyers defended the District from claims it negligently failed to supervise a teacher who repeatedly had sexual relations with a 14-year old middle school student by arguing the middle-school student “consented.” The District also introduced evidence of the child’s past sexual history in support of its argument that the girl could not possibly have been damaged by the teacher’s abuse.
This story comes as something of a shock to most Los Angeles residents. But it shouldn’t. LAUSD’s use of questionable litigation tactics has come under fire frequently, most recently in the Miramonte Elementary School abuse scandal in which more than 100 young students were allegedly photographed by teacher Mark Berndt in his classroom engaged in staged sadomasochistic poses, using gags and blindfolds, and were also allegedly fed Berndt’s semen. Berndt was arrested and subsequently sentenced to 25 years in prison. Civil litigation followed in which LAUSD is alleged to have ignored numerous “red flags” concerning Berndt, including complaints from parents, teachers and students. The first Miramonte civil trial is expected to begin with jury selection on November 17, 2014.
During the course of the Miramonte litigation, LAUSD lawyers have been taken to task by the trial judge for failing to disclose hundreds of photos of students shot by Berndt despite repeated assurances by LAUSD that such photos did not exist. In addition, the LAUSD admitted that in 2008 it engaged in the systematic destruction of internal reports documenting suspected child abuse across the District. Also, the District indicated it would raise the issue of the immigration status of victims at trial, a position it later abandoned under a deluge of adverse press. More recently, District in-house lawyers were accused of pressuring a staffer in the General Counsel’s office to alter a sworn declaration concerning certain child abuse reports.
Perhaps more troubling is the wholesale lack of transparency on the part of the Board and its current legal staff in the wake of the Miramonte scandal. After the arrest of Mark Berndt in January 2012, former LAUSD Superintendent John Deasy announced the formation of an independent commission to investigate Miramonte and other abuse scandals plaguing the District. The commission was supposed to be co-chaired by prominent civil rights lawyer Connie Rice and former California Supreme Court Justice Carlos Moreno. However, earlier this year LAUSD admitted that the “Rice Commission” had been disbanded by order of District lawyers, and had never even started its investigation. Moreover, LAUSD has repeatedly invoked the “attorney-client privilege” to preclude victims’ lawyers from determining the results of any internal investigations into the incident.
The litigation tactics employed by LAUSD presumably originate with the District’s Office of General Counsel headed by chief lawyer David Holmquist, and would appear to require at least the tacit approval of LAUSD Board of Education members, for whom Holmquist works. That lawyers would initiate such amoral defense strategies might be expected –the tobacco industry used beat-down tactics for years–but for elected officials whose sworn duty is the education and safety of our children, the decision to blame child victims for their abuse, and to ignore document destruction and other abuses, is unfathomable.