L.A. teacher suspected of lewd conduct keeps benefits
A teacher charged with 23 counts of lewd conduct in his classroom successfully thwarted attempts by the Los Angeles Unified School District to fire him. In the process, the teacher, who is accused of spoon-feeding his semen to blindfolded children, managed to retain lifetime health-benefits provided by the nation’s second-largest school system.
Former Miramonte Elementary School teacher Mark Berndt also automatically receives nearly $4,000 a month in pension from the California State Teachers' Retirement System.
Investigators were a year away from filing charges against Berndt, 61, when they brought copies of disturbing photos to the school principal on Jan. 3, 2011, according to investigators. Sheriff's investigators had pictures of boys and girls gagged with tape, blindfolded and some were being fed a milky substance from a spoon.
L.A. schools Supt. John Deasy — then the No. 2 in command — said he acted to remove Berndt from class the same day he saw the photos and felt there was justification for immediate dismissal. Records indicate that Berndt was pulled from the school on Jan. 6, 2011. And, then-L.A. schools Supt. Ramon C. Cortines, who has since retired, said he ordered Berndt to be fired when he heard about the photos.
The district’s legal staff warned Cortines that there might be complications for acting so quickly. Standard practice in L.A. Unified and elsewhere has been to “house” teachers in a district office, away from students, until a legal issue is resolved. But Cortines said he told senior staff that he didn’t want to wait, an account that was confirmed by a former Cortines aide.
By Feb. 15, the paperwork was ready for the elected Board of Education to dismiss Berndt formally and the school board ratified Cortines’ decision. As of Feb. 16, the district stopped paying Berndt, said Vivian Ekchian, chief human resources officer for L.A. Unified.
But the matter didn't end there. Berndt had 30 days to challenge his dismissal, which he did with the help of Trygstad, Schwab & Trygstad, a firm known for representing the teachers union, United Teachers Los Angeles. In this case, Berndt hired the firm privately; its specialties include defending teachers facing dismissal.
Berndt’s case was then set to go before an administrative hearing panel, a process that would take months. While awaiting a hearing, Berndt resigned from the school system in June 2011, six months after Deasy and Cortines determined to fire him.
Because Berndt never was officially fired, he retains lifetime health benefits that he earned through decades of service in L.A. Unified. Ekchian said the district is researching its options for trying to rescind those benefits should Berndt be convicted.
His retirement benefits were never at issue.
“A teacher will receive their pension regardless of the reason for their termination because it is a benefit the teacher earned through their contributions and length of service,” said Michelle Mussuto, a spokeswoman for CalSTRS. “Once earned, that benefit cannot be taken away unless it is determined the teacher obtained that benefit by fraudulent means.”
Berndt has been receiving $3,891.17 per month since last July.
-- Howard Blume
Photo: Mark Berndt. Credit: Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department