Teacher's alleged classroom abuse spanned 5 years, police say
Authorities say that a South Los Angeles teacher accused of gagging and blindfolding children and feeding them semen began his series of alleged crimes as far back as 2005.
The alleged incidents inside teacher Mark Berndt's classroom continued until 2010, according to court documents and interviews with law enforcement officials.
Berndt is being held in lieu of $2.3-million bail after his arrest Monday. He was charged Tuesday with 23 felony counts of lewd acts upon a child and is scheduled to appear in court Wednesday. He could not be reached for comment.
Detectives said they were still trying to determine how far back the alleged abuse occurred and believe there might be more alleged victims out there.
They are also trying to understand why no one — students, parents or fellow teachers — ever reported anything suspicious about Berndt's class. School officials insist that they received no complaints about Berndt, something they say is alarming given the charges against him.
"I wonder how long he was doing this — and to how many kids?" said Arianna Perez, the mother of two students at Miramonte Elementary, where the abuse is alleged to have occurred.
The case began when photos of scenes in the classroom were allegedly found by a photo processor, who called authorities.
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 believed to be semen and found it matched the DNA of the teacher, 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.
"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