Miramonte teacher investigated in '94 after girl saw 'Oprah' show
A veteran Los Angeles teacher accused of committing lewd acts on 23 children was investigated in 1994 for attempting to fondle a girl after she saw an "Oprah" television episode that explained "good touches" and "bad touches," sheriff's officials said.
The girl, who was 10 or 11 at the time, told her mother in January 1994 that Miramonte Elementary School teacher Mark Berndt tried to touch her genitals four months earlier, Los Angeles County Sheriff's Sgt. Dan Scott said.
"She was taking a test at her desk in Berndt's classroom when the teacher reached towards her genitals and she pushed his hand away," Scott said.
She was clothed at the time of the incident, Scott added.
The girl said she realized it was wrong and came forward to her mother after seeing an "Oprah" show about inappropriate touching, he said. Her mother reported the alleged incident to school officials, who called the Sheriff's Department.
The allegation was investigated by a sheriff's detective and presented to the district attorney's office, which rejected the case, Scott said.
The district attorney's office declined to comment, saying it was prohibited by law from discussing cases more than 60 days old in which charges were not filed.
But two sources familiar with the investigation who were not authorized to discuss it said the prosecutor at the time believed there was a lack of evidence of a crime and that the attempted touch could be viewed as accidental.
Scott said he discovered the prior investigation Wednesday evening while reviewing records.
L.A. schools Supt. John Deasy confirmed that he, too, had learned of an episode of alleged inappropriate behavior by Berndt “sometime in the 1990s” on Wednesday evening.
“I don’t have any records in the district of it,” he said. “It’s in the sheriff’s office.”
Deasy has assembled an internal investigative team to examine Berndt’s case and determine if there is a record of past incidents or suspicions about Berndt. So far, the district team has turned up no such internal records, he said.
Berndt remains in jail on $23-million bail. His public defender has declined to comment. He is accused of blindfolding children as part of a "tasting game" and spoon-feeding them his semen. In some cases, the children were gagged, sheriff's officials said, and sometimes he placed giant Madagascar cockroaches on their faces.
Los Angeles Unified School District officials said he was removed from the classroom in January 2011, immediately after they learned of the allegations. He was fired at a school board meeting in February 2011, but he challenged the dismissal and was able to resign while his case was under appeal. The resignation allowed him to keep his lifetime health benefits from the district. He also receives a nearly $4,000-a-month pension from the state.
-- Richard Winton and Howard Blume
Photo: Mark Berndt, 61, is charged with 23 counts of lewd acts upon a child. Credit: Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department