In public schools we trust?
For fans of dark comedy, California politics is as good as any entertainment – shot through with grim irony, corrupt politicians, and laughable hypocrisy. Consider Attorney General Rob Bonta’s legal campaign to crush the practice of seven school districts to notify parents before gender-transitioning their children.
Parent notification, as it’s called, “places transgender and gender nonconforming students in danger of imminent, irreparable harm from the consequences of forced disclosures,” Bonta asserted in announcing his lawsuit against Chino Valley Unified, the first of the districts to adopt the policy. “These students are currently under threat of being outed to their parents or guardians against their express wishes and will.”
Translation: Parents are a danger to their own children, and school employees must be trusted to guide K-12 kids through puberty without parental interference.
Meantime, however – and here’s your irony alert – Los Angeles Unified School District officials say their budget is in chaos because of multi-million-dollar settlements with children sexually assaulted by teachers and other school employees.
Speaking to the LAUSD board on Wednesday, Chief Business Officer David Hart raised the alarm over “certain liabilities . . . with regards to, you know, heinous activities of adults with children is the simplest way to put that. We were surprised by the amounts that we were compelled to set aside.”
One of those surprises came 24 hours before Hart’s red-flag warning. On Tuesday, LAUSD announced that it had settled for $7.9 million yet another sex assault claim involving “heinous acts” of teachers with their students.
Contrary to Hart’s assessment, none of this is surprising says John Manly, the linebacker-sized Southern California trial attorney and former Navy intelligence officer who has hunted child predators and won staggering settlements for their victims.
Manly built his brand on eye-popping showdowns with the molestation scandal in the Catholic Church, including a record-setting $660 million settlement against the Archdiocese of Los Angeles in 2007. He negotiated similar settlements with the Diocese of Orange ($6.9 million), the Oregon-based Society of Jesus ($50 million), and the Diocese of Delaware (a $77 million settlement).
It’s not just a Catholic thing for Manly. His firm also represented female gymnasts in the successful case against Michigan State University and U.S. Olympic Team doctor Larry Nasser. He represented 234 plaintiffs in the case against former USC gynecologist George Tyndall.
In California’s K-12 schools, Manly sees all the conditions for more multi-million-dollar sex-assault settlements – vulnerable young people, activist teachers protected by their politically powerful union, and, most important, a culture of official secrecy. Balanced against the suddenly popular Parent Notification policy is the state Department of Education’s guidance: school officials, including teachers, must hide students’ gender orientation from their own parents.
“With rare exceptions,” the department says, “schools are required to respect the limitations that a student places on the disclosure of their transgender status, including not sharing that information with the student’s parents.”
That sort of secrecy has created “a horror show,” Manly says. “I’ve handled hundreds of public-school cases, and in the majority of those, perpetrators of molestation told their victims, ‘This is our secret. Don’t tell your parents. Don’t tell adults. Don’t tell anybody.’”
If you doubt him, Manly asks that you recall the story of Mark Berndt, the Los Angeles elementary school teacher who molested at least 71 third graders over several decades, cresting in a campaign of assault between 2009-2011. Berndt’s crimes were remarkable for many reasons, but perhaps especially because Berndt meticulously photographed them – and then left the film for development at his local CVS store where a clerk who saw the photos alerted local police. The photos depict Berndt feeding cookies to his victims – cookies topped with his own semen. A connoisseur of bondage-and-discipline, Berndt blindfolded and bound some of his diminutive victims’ hands with tape and photographed them in sexualized poses. He placed live cockroaches on the children’s faces. A Sheriff’s investigation said his “highly assaulting” attacks included touching girls’ genitalia and exposing himself to his students.
When confronted with the evidence against him, Berndt, then 61, refused to resign; he knew that his teacher union contract made it nearly impossible to fire a teacher, even a teacher convicted of serious felonies involving students. Berndt ultimately agreed to quit, but only after squeezing Los Angeles Unified School District officials for a $40,000 payoff. When Berndt learned that felony convictions might imperil his pension, the United Teachers of Los Angeles union contract saved him again. Berndt would continue to earn about $4,000 per month (plus cost-of-living adjustments) while serving his 25-year sentence.
At trial, Manly, showed that LAUSD officials knew that Berndt was trouble years before but did nothing. Their nonchalance cost the district $139 million to settle legal claims with 69 parents and 81 students.
Berndt was unique only in the bizarre superficialities of his violence. Manly can tick off a list of similar teacher-involved horrors without reference to notes. There was the Redlands Unified School District high school teacher who seduced a 16-year-old boy. She swore him to secrecy and, when she discovered she was pregnant, demanded that the boy carry out his fatherly duties. The district settled the family’s claim for $6 million in 2016. In 2018, the same district paid $15.7 million to settle three other sex-abuse lawsuits involving eight children. In May 2018, nearby Torrance Unified School District paid $31 million to settle the claims of eight former students who said they were molested by their wrestling coach. That same month, the Corona-Norco Unified School District paid $3 million to a special-education student raped by a teacher’s aide for two years beginning when she was just 11.
The catalog of abuse goes on and on, though you’d never know it from listening to state officials fixed on the unfailing virtue of public-school teachers and the universal danger posed by homicidal parents – “extremists,” Bonta calls them. At Irvine’s University High, Sacramento’s Mark Twain Elementary, San Diego’s upscale La Jolla High School – search any California school district (Santa Barbara, Redding, California’s Central Valley) and you’ll discover that sexual violence against children is rampant and unfolding behind a wall of official secrecy.
“The common thread [between the Catholic Church and public-school scandals] is secrecy,” Manly says. “You’re telling kids to keep sexual secrets, including gender issues, from their parents. It’s a bad idea. I’m telling you, sending that message to kids is a very, very bad idea. I can’t tell you how many more cases there will be where adults are telling children – their victims – ‘This is our secret.’”
What would he recommend?
“You need a policy where children aren’t told to keep secrets from their parents or other caregivers,” Manly says.
That “policy” sounds like the Parent Notification policy now gaining purchase in local school districts – the policy Rob Bonta is suing to stop. But even if that policy survives California’s notoriously progressive courts, it will come too late for the scores of kids already raped and otherwise sexually abused by schoolteachers – perps whom Newsom, Bonta, Thurmond and teacher union leaders would prefer we forget.
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond echoed Bonta’s claims, declaring that the Parent Notification policy “may not only fall outside of privacy laws but may put our students at risk.” Hyperventilating reporters routinely call the policy “forced outing” of “at-risk youth” in stories that feature academics who assert (as UCLA law professor Jody Herman did) that Parent Notification “gambles” with children’s lives. Leaders of the California Teachers Association have seized on Bonta’s legal filing is their license to flout the local policies and to conduct business as usual. They’re telling California’s 315,000 teachers that law and public safety allow – indeed, require – them to ignore the parent notification policy.
If Bonta & Co. succeed in crushing the Parent Notification policy, the abuse will continue. Business will boom for attorneys like Manly.
Soon after we spoke, Manly texted me with good news: he was celebrating yet another settlement in the case of the Redlands Unified teacher who became pregnant after raping her 16-year-old student. “That’s almost $46 million collected to date against Redlands Unified,” he said.
The key phrase is “to date.”
“We’ve identified 14 other teacher perpetrators in Redlands since then – five convicted and two to be indicted presently.” Those cases include “50-plus victims,” he says.
You’d think this ongoing scandal in the nation’s largest public school system – the sexual assault, the coverups, the climate of secrecy and staggering payouts – would generate the sort of outrage that surrounds the Catholic Church. You’d think that Rob Bonta, the state’s top cop, would call for investigations, prosecutions and – imagine this – decoupling teachers unions from school governance. You’d think that local school board trustees, fearing multi-million-dollar settlements with sex-abuse victims, would unanimously adopt the Parent Notification policy. But in the upside-down Golden State, only government can save us from the terror lurking inside our own families.
Will Swaim is president of the California Policy Center and co-host with David Bahnsen of National Review’s “Radio Free California” podcast.
This op-ed originally appeared in the Orange County Register.