Accused teacher's behavior was reported decades ago, students say
Two former students of a teacher accused of bizarre acts of lewd conduct in his classroom said school officials were informed about his questionable behavior two decades ago.
School officials and Sheriff's Department investigators have said they have no records of anyone complaining about former teacher Mark Berndt, 61, who is accused of gagging students with tape, blindfolding them and spoon-feeding his semen to them as part of a “tasting game.”
But two women came forward Wednesday to say that school officials had looked into a complaint made against Berndt in the 1990-91 school year.
In an interview with The Times, Marlene Trujillo said that she was a fourth-grader in his class at the time, and that she wasn’t sure what to make of her teacher’s odd behavior.
She said Berndt often moved his hands under his desk, near his lap, at the front of the classroom. She and other students had seen a jar of Vaseline in one of his desk compartments.
Trujillo, a 30-year-old paralegal, said she was called before a school counselor with two other girls after one of them complained about Berndt’s alleged behavior.
“I didn’t say much during the meeting,” Trujillo said. Finally, the counselor “just told us it’s not very good to make stories up. She said it was our imagination. It was never talked about again.”
Trujillo said she felt relieved. “I was glad that I didn’t get in trouble, that they didn’t tell my mom I was part of making up stories.”
Berndt had always been kind to her, buying her Hostess pastries, sending her tapes of the Beach Boys and Christmas cards for several years after she left his class, she said. Despite behavior that she now considers inappropriate, she remembered him as a “good teacher” who added excitement to lessons about the Dewey decimal system, weather and evolution.
One of her classmates at the time, Nadine Martinez Rodriguez, said she also noticed Berndt’s behavior. Martinez, now 30 and a PhD student at UC Santa Barbara, said that she told her mother about it at the time but that her mother didn’t take it seriously enough to report to school officials.
When told of the allegations by a reporter Wednesday, Los Angeles Unified School District Supt. John Deasy said he would immediately report them to sheriff’s investigators.
Deasy also said he was launching an internal investigation to determine why the alleged crimes went undetected for five years.
“How do I make sense out of the fact that this took place over a number of years and no one seemed to know about that?” said Deasy in an interview Wednesday morning. “I’m definitely trying to understand how someone could not have known.”
Berndt was charged with 23 counts of committing lewd acts on children. He has not entered a plea. He is in jail on $23-million bail. His public defender declined to comment.
He allegedly took hundreds of photos of the children, many with a milky substance around their mouths, authorities said. The charges date back to 2005, prosecutors said.
-- Alan Zarembo, Richard Winton and Howard Blume
Photo: Mark Berndt. Credit: L.A. County Sheriff's Department