Parents angry they weren’t told of teacher allegations sooner
Parents at Miramonte Elementary School in South L.A. said they were stunned by allegations that a longtime teacher was arrested on charges that he abused at least 23 children.
Kimberly Kirklin, 32, has six children, including three daughters who are still students at Miramonte. She said she quizzed each of them immediately after learning of the arrest of former teacher Mark Berndt on the early morning television news Tuesday, and felt secure that they had never been subjected to any lewd activity.
Berndt, 61, was arrested Monday after a yearlong investigation and charged with committing lewd acts on 23 children. Authorities say at least 10 more children seen in photos seized by detectives have not been identified. Berndt is accused of blindfolding the children, tying them up and in some cases placing cockroaches on their faces and spoon-feeding them a white substances believed to be his semen.
Kirklin said her daughters refused to go to school Tuesday -- and she said she could not blame them and would not force them to go. She said she would attempt to enroll her children in another school.
"She refuses to go to school," Kirklin said of one daughter, as she embraced the child on a Florence-Firestone street near the school. "I'm not going to force her."
Kirklin was among those who argued that parents should have been notified earlier; school officials have said they took immediate steps to remove the teacher from the classroom and begin working with both law enforcement investigators and victims' families.
Heidy Morales, who had come to pick up her preschool-age son and also has a daughter in kindergarten at the school, said she hadn't heard anything about the accusations until Tuesday.
"This is my first time hearing of that," she said. "It's scary. I don't know what to say."
The school should have told parents about the teacher when they learned about the photos, she said.
"I would have taken my daughter away from this school."
Los Angeles schools Supt. John Deasy said 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 the next school board meeting.
Deasy offered a swift condemnation Tuesday of the former teacher, who is in jail on $2.3-million bail and could not be reached for comment.
"I find it disgusting, I find it reprehensible," Deasy said. "I hope this man spends the rest of his life in prison."
It is "despicable," Deasy said, "when you are entrusted with the lives of our youth, and you violate that."
-- Scott Gold and Paloma Esquivel at Miramonte Elementary School
Photo: Miramonte Elementary School Principal Martin Sandoval speaks to the news media outside his school. Credit: Damian Dovarganes / Associated Press