Parents invited teacher accused of abuse to parties, quinceañeras
Across the street from Miramonte Elementary School, a group of six mothers gathered to talk about the news of the longtime teacher charged with abusing students.
Almost all of them had children who were taught by Mark Berndt, including one woman who said her 30- and 26-year-old daughters had been his students.
None would give their names for fear that their children would be identified.
Berndt, 61, was arrested Monday after a yearlong investigation and charged with committing lewd acts on 23 children. Authorities said Berndt blindfolded the children, then spoon-fed them a white substance believed to be his semen. He is accused of tying them up and placing giant Madagascar cockroaches on their faces.
One woman, whose daughter is now 10, was a student in Berndt's classroom when she was 7. The mother said she trusted the teacher so much that she invited him to her daughter's birthday party and recommended that her friend's 14-year-old daughter volunteer in his classroom.
Her story is a common one, according to a district insider familiar with the investigation. Parents had so much trust in Berndt, a fixture at the school, that they invited him to birthday parties and stayed in touch long after their children left his class. He was the sort of teacher who’d be invited to quinceañeras — coming-of-age parties for girls, a tradition in the Latino community.
"Parents loved him," said the district source who asked not to be named because he is not authorized to speak. "But the investigators felt the relationship was unnaturally close to the children."
The mother of the 10-year-old said she he had heard rumors throughout the year about pictures he'd taken but didn't believe there was anything to it until she heard about the arrest. She and the other women around her were struggling to make sense of the arrest of a man they all knew.
"Could it be that he did something?" the mother of the 10-year-old asked. "He behaved well with the children."
The school district was notified of the allegations on Jan. 7, 2011, and Berndt was removed from the classroom the same day. He was terminated by the district at its next board meeting.
-- Paloma Esquivel and Howard Blume
Photo: Mark Berndt. Credit: Los Angeles Times