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LA school district to settle elementary school abuse claims

By Dan Whitcomb

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - The Los Angeles Unified School District has agreed to a multimillion-dollar settlement with 58 current and former students at a school where an ex-teacher was accused of taking bondage-style photos of pupils, a lawyer for the district said on Tuesday.

The settlement would resolve nearly half of the 129 claims filed by former students of Miramonte Elementary School, attorney David Holmquist said.

Holmquist, who represents the school district, declined to disclose the amount of the settlement, which must be approved by a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge, but said it totaled millions of dollars.

"When we set up this early resolution process back last summer, the goals were to promote healing in the community and provide for the emotional health needs of the students into the future," Holmquist said. "It's in everybody's best interest, but primarily the students'."

The Los Angeles Times reported on its website that the district would pay a total of $30 million to settle the claims, with each student receiving about $470,000.

Allegations of abuse at Miramonte last year touched off protests by infuriated parents and prompted Los Angeles County school officials to temporarily replace the entire staff at Miramonte during an exhaustive investigation.

Mark Berndt, the first of two former Miramonte teachers accused of molesting students there, made headlines when he was charged in January 2012 with 23 counts of lewd acts on children, all aged 10 and younger.

Berndt is accused of taking bondage-style photos of students, some with large, live "Madagascar-type cockroaches" on their faces. In others, students were seen with spoons of semen held to their faces, according to authorities. He has pleaded not guilty.

The investigation began after a company that does photo processing turned over pictures to detectives. Authorities said a search turned up hundreds more photos.

Berndt, who taught at Miramonte for more than 30 years, was fired by the school district in early 2011, shortly after the investigation began. He could spend the rest of his life in prison if convicted.

In February 2012, then-Miramonte teacher Martin Springer was charged with three counts of lewd acts on a child. Springer also pleaded not guilty.

Holmquist said dozens of claims filed by parents or guardians were not part of the settlement agreement, but that the district was seeking to resolve the remaining cases.

(Reporting by Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Cynthia Johnston, Richard Chang and Stacey Joyce)

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