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Thursday, July 13, 2017

Mark Berndt: The Elementary Teacher From Hell

     People without sexual perversions are normal in generally the same way. Sexual perverts, on the other hand, are deviant in disturbingly diverse ways. Adults who use innocent children to satisfy their perverse sexual compulsions are not mentally ill in the sense they are detached from reality. To other adults, even to people they work with every day, they seem normal. Sexually perverse elementary teachers are hard to detect because they victimize kids who are under their control. Sometimes the children don't even know they are being victimized. Teachers like this can get away with sexually abusive behavior for decades. Most of them probably die before they are caught. Short of launching McCarthy-like witch hunts, how can these sexual predators be identified and stopped?

     Mark Berndt, a 61-year-old third grade teacher at the Miramonte Elementary School in Florence Firestone, an unincorporated community in Los Angeles County, began teaching at the school in 1979. Miramonte, situated in an hispanic neighborhood, is in the Los Angeles Unified School District which is comprised of hundreds of campuses and 650,000 students. During his tenure at Miramonte, Berndt, according to his personnel file, had performed up to school standards without a single disciplinary action taken against him. Moreover, he had never been arrested for anything more serious than a traffic ticket.

     In October 2010, a technician at a CVS drugstore in the South Bay area of Los Angeles, came across a set of disturbing photographs of grade school boys and girls depicted in situations suggesting a bizarre form of sexual bondage. The film processor, as mandated by state law, notified the Redondo Beach Police Department. On December 2, 2010, the Redondo police turned the 40 photographs over to the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Office.

     In some of the photographs, Mark Berndt either has his arm around a third grade boy or girl, or his hand covering their mouths. Some photographs show children with live bugs crawling on their faces. Other kids are either blindfolded, or have their mouths covered with clear tape. Some of the girls are depicted holding spoons containing a white liquid up to their mouths. Children are also pictured about to eat cookies topped with the teacher's semen. (In Berndt's classroom trash can, police recovered a blue, plastic spoon containing traces of his semen.)

     Detectives with the sheriff's office's Special Victims Unit, started identifying the students in the photographs for interview. On January 3, 2011, a detective showed up at Miramonte to question Berndt. The teacher refused to speak to the investigator without first consulting with an attorney.

     A former fourth grade student of Berndt's, a woman now 30, told detectives that in 1990, she and two other girls spoke to a school counselor about their teacher's odd, inappropriate behavior. They had seen him, seated at his desk at the front of the room, playing with himself. The counselor accused the girls of making up the story. As a result, nothing came of their complaint. (In 1993, police investigators looked into similar complaints against Berndt. The Los Angeles District Attorney's Office, on grounds the police had not gathered sufficient evidence against the teacher, decided not to pursue the case. Presumably, school officials knew of the investigation.)

     Shortly after Berndt refused to be interviewed by the police, school administrators removed him from the classroom. A month later, February 201l, they fired him. (Actually, he wasn't fired. School officials induced him to retire by offering him $40,000 which he accepted. Firing a public school teacher is no small feat.)  While the parents of the children depicted in the photographs were told of the investigation, the police kept the public in the dark. (Placed under police surveillance, Berndt, between the time of his discharge and arrest, was not in contact with children.)

     On January 30, 2012, following a 13 month investigation, the case went public with Berndt's arrest at his home in Torrance. A search of his dwelling resulted in the discovery of 400 photographs similar to the ones seen by the CVS employee. (A normal person, knowing that he was under police investigation, would have destroyed these photographs. The fact that Brendt didn't, reveals how important these photos were to him. The police have recommended that the children in the photographs be tested for sexually transmitted diseases.) Charged with 23 counts of lewd acts against minors, Brendt was hauled off to jail where he was held on $23 million bond. The criminal charges against him pertained to his contact with children ages 6 to 10 from 2008 to 2010.

     On February 3, 2012, the police arrested a second Miramonte teacher on charges unrelated to the Berndt case. Martin B. Springer, 49, was charged with three counts of committing lewd acts in connection with the alleged fondling an 8-year-old girl in one of his classes. He was fired and held on $300,000 bail. From Alhambra, Springer had been teaching at the school since 1986. The judge who set bail decreed that if Springer made his bond, he was to wear an ankle monitoring device and to stay 250 feet away from schools and parks. On February 7, 2012, one of the two girls who accused Springer of fondling her, recanted her story.

     A lawyer representing "Jane Doe 1," one of Berndt's victims who ate a sugar cookie laced with the teacher's semen, announced plans to sue the Los Angeles Unified School District. The plaintiff claimed that the school district did not take adequate steps to prevent Berndt from repeatedly abusing his students after numerous complaints had been filed against him. (Following Berndt's arrest, seven more students came forward with allegations of abuse.)

     On February 6, 2012, perhaps in response to allegations of an institutional cover-up, the 88 teachers and 40 staff employees at Miramonte were suspended with pay. They were replaced by a substitute crew of teachers and clerks.

     The Miramonte situation continued to worsen on February 7, 2012, when the mother of a former fourth grader told the Los Angeles Times that in 2009, a 50-year-old female teacher's aide wrote three love letters to her then 11-year-old son. One of the letters read, "...when you get close to me, even if you give me the chills, I like that. Don't tell nobody (oh boy) about this!"

     In November 2013, Mark Berndt pleaded no contest to 23 counts of lewd acts on children. The judge sentenced the 62-year-old former elementary teacher to 25 years in prison. According to Berndt's defense attorney, his client was "remorseful and apologetic." The lawyer said that Berndt had entered a plea to spare his victims the ordeal of a trial. (How about this: Berndt had spared himself the ordeal of a trial and made the deal to get a lighter prison sentence.)

     On November 21, 2014, a spokesperson for the Los Angeles Unified School District announced that it had agreed to pay nearly $170 million in court settlements related to the Berndt pedophilia case. The settlement involved more than a hundred students.

           

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