Teacher's alleged classroom abuse began in 2005, authorities say
A South Los Angeles teacher accused of gagging and blindfolding children and feeding them semen will face multiple felony charges in a court hearing Wednesday.
Authorities say the alleged crimes took place between 2005 and 2010, though detectives said they were still trying to determine how far back the alleged abuse occurred.
Mark Berndt is being held in lieu of $2.3-million bail after being arrested Monday. He was charged Tuesday with 23 felony counts of lewd acts upon a child.
He was in jail Tuesday and could not be reached for comment.
The case began when photos of scenes in the classroom emerged. Berndt, 61, was fired as a teacher in March and was arrested Monday after a yearlong investigation.
Sgt. Dan Scott of the L.A. County Sheriff's Department said the photos were perplexing because the children were smiling and appeared not to be in distress. Detectives went to Berndt's classroom, where they found a spoon in a trash bin that matched a spoon seen in the images.
They tested a substance on the spoon and found a DNA match with the teacher's semen, Scott said.
"We didn't have a felony until the semen was discovered," Scott said.
The photos showed students bound and blindfolded, some with large Madagascar cockroaches crawling on them, inside the school setting, Scott said. Scott said girls were allegedly photographed with a blue spoon holding a white substance near their mouths. Investigators said they believe that substance was Berndt's semen and that he had the girls consume it.
Investigators said they have recovered more than 400 images. Ten children in those photos have not been identified. More than 80 children and staff at Miramonte Elementary have been interviewed. Miramonte Elementary is in Florence-Firestone, an unincorporated area of L.A. County and is within the Los Angeles Unified School District.
Parents whose children attend the school expressed shock over the news.
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 Berndt's arrest Tuesday morning and felt secure that they had never been subjected to any lewd activity.
Kirklin said her daughters refused to go to school Tuesday. She said she would attempt to enroll her children in another school.
One woman's daughter was a student in Berndt's classroom when she was 7, three years ago. 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.
-- Richard Winton, Rick Rojas, Howard Blume, Scott Gold, Paloma Esquivel and Jeff Gottlieb
Photo: A reporter walks to Mark Berndt's apartment in Torrance. Credit: Jae C. Hong / Associated Press