Teacher arrests show 'complete failure' at L.A. school, attorney says
Accusations by a student at Miramonte Elementary School that she was a victim of two teachers accused of abuse raises troubling questions about oversight at the school, the attorney for her family said.
“Based on my experience, it appears to show a complete failure of the system,” attorney Matthew McNicholas said. “Schools act in place of the parent. … Schools are where kids are supposed to be safe.”
The Times talked to the parents of the second-grader after being contacted by McNicholas, who said he plans to file a claim against the Los Angeles Unified School District.
The father said that in 2008, his daughter came home from her second-grade class and showed her parents two photos she said were taken by her teacher, Mark Berndt.
One photo shows her with two other girls, standing against a wall. The second shows her biting down on a small cookie. A shiny, light-colored substance is faintly visible on top of the cookie. They allowed The Times to look at the two photos, which have time stamps on the back that indicate they were developed in August 2008, a few weeks after the girl started second grade.
The parents said they found the photos strange and went to Miramonte's principal at the time to complain. They say the principal looked at the photos but dismissed their concerns, suggesting the photos might be part of a class project.
The girl was later transferred to the classroom of Martin Bernard Springer. There, the father said, his daughter said Springer touched her on the leg and thigh.
The parents put the alleged incidents behind them until last week, when Berndt was charged with 23 acts of lewd conduct against students in his classroom. Berndt, 61, allegedly spoon-fed his semen to children as part of what he called a “tasting game” in which children were blindfolded and, in some cases, gagged with tape. Authorities said they have hundreds of photos he allegedly took in the classroom showing such scenes.
Then on Friday, Springer was arrested after the girl and another female student said he touched them improperly within the last three years.
Law enforcement sources said Saturday that detectives believe the one girl was a victim of both Berndt and Springer. Detectives have been investigating her accusations against the two teachers.
The detectives have seen records confirming that the girl was transferred from Berndt’s class to Springer's class, said the sources, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the case was ongoing.
The accusations by the second-grader's parents raise more questions about how much officials knew about Berndt's behavior. Two former students of Berndt, who are now adults, said in interviews with The Times that they thought they saw the teacher masturbating behind his desk in the 1990-91 school year. A counselor at the school told a group of students at the time not to make up stories, one of them said.
In 1994, a girl reported that Berndt had tried to touch her genitals. Detectives investigated but no charges were filed.
Berndt is being held in lieu of $23-million bail. His attorney has declined requests for comment. Springer is also in jail and could not be reached for comment.
Last week, LAUSD Supt. John Deasy launched an internal investigation to determine why Berndt escaped suspicion for so long and whether any other employees are implicated in wrongdoing or failing to respond to concerns about the teacher.
Deasy said district officials were working through the weekend. They have compiled Miramonte staff lists going back decades and have begun calling in current and former employees.
“The full scope of this investigation is ongoing, which involves interviewing any employee who works here at the moment or ever worked at Miramonte,” Deasy said Saturday. “We work with the police when we discover anything that is not administrative, anything that could be criminal. And we are preparing a series of steps we’ll be taking next week.”
--Sam Allen, Richard Winton and Howard Blume
Photos: Mark Berndt and Martin Springer. Credit: Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department