LA school officials chided for molest case silence
LOS ANGELES – Angry parents confronted school officials Wednesday, demanding to know why they weren't told for a year that a teacher was suspected of photographing children in class for sexual thrills.
The clash came at a forum staged at Miramonte Elementary School to discuss the investigation of Mark Berndt, a third-grade teacher who is charged with committing lewd acts on 23 boys and girls, ages 6 to 10, between 2005 and 2010 at the campus where he taught for more than 30 years.
Berndt was removed from classwork in January 2011 and fired within the month, but only parents of children identified as victims were told by authorities at that time of the investigation.
Berndt's bail was raised to $23 million Wednesday as he appeared in court for the first time on the felony charges that could bring multiple life sentences if he is convicted.
Meanwhile, at the forum, some angry parents with children at the school complained that they only learned of the investigation through the media after Berndt's arrest this week.
School officials and investigators said proper procedures were followed to prevent anything that might harm efforts to investigate and build a case against the teacher.
"That's cool and fine but the detectives' children don't go here," said Cheremoya Dupree, 38, whose two children attend the school and were not victims. "I want them to tell the truth ... because I don't think we got that."
Miramonte Principal Martin Sandoval told reporters that he followed proper district procedure.
Two former students of Berndt said school officials were informed about his odd behavior two decades ago.
Marlene Truhillo told the Los Angeles Times (http://lat.ms/yo4M8P) in a story posted online Wednesday that school officials had looked into a complaint made against Berndt in the 1990-91 school year.
Trujillo said she was a fourth-grader in his class at the time and met with a school counselor with two other girls after one of them complained about his behavior.
She said Berndt often moved his hands under his desk, near his lap, at the front of the classroom. She and other students had seen a jar of Vaseline in one of his desk compartments.
Trujillo said the counselor "just told us it's not very good to make stories up. She said it was our imagination. It was never talked about again."
Trujillo's classmate at the time, Nadine Martinez Rodriguez, said she also noticed Berndt's behavior. Martinez said she told her mother about it at the time but that her mother didn't take it seriously enough to report to school officials, the Times reported.
Using a cheap camera, Berndt is suspected of snapping nearly 400 photographs of Miramonte students, some with a giant Madagascar cockroach from a classroom terrarium on their faces.
Others were blindfolded or had clear tape over their mouths, and some were shown with a spoonful of milky liquid placed near their lips, sheriff's Sgt. Dan Scott said.
The photo sessions were treated as a game and some children were given sperm-laced cookies to eat as treats, Scott said. Berndt didn't sell or share the photographs but did give copies to some children, Scott said.
"It was like a souvenir," Scott said.
Some children were smiling, and there was one photograph of Berndt tied up but with a "nonchalant" expression, Scott said.
The investigation began in the fall of 2010 when a film processor became suspicious about the photographs and turned them over to Redondo Beach police, who on Dec. 2, 2010, handed them over to the Sheriff's Department, Scott said.
Investigators began trying to track down the children, but learned the year-round school was on break until Jan. 3, 2011, Scott said.
On that day, investigators went to the class, where Berndt refused to be questioned without an attorney, Scott said.
An investigator then found a blue spoon apparently hidden in a trash can that appeared to be the one seen in the photographs, but it took months before analysis determined there was semen on the spoon and more time before DNA testing matched it to Berndt, authorities said.
Only then was there enough evidence of a crime to charge Berndt, Scott said.
Meanwhile, investigators kept trying to identify children in the photographs, some of which apparently dated back to 2005.
"Up until two weeks ago, we were still working to identify children," Scott said.