A court spokesperson for the Los Angeles Unified School District announced that it had agreed to pay nearly $140 million in settlements related to a case involving a third grade teacher at a district school. The long running legal battle, involving over 100 families, brings to an end a sickening case of abuse that began in 2010.
Mark Berndt, a 61-year-old third grade teacher at the Miramonte Elementary School, began teaching at the school in 1979. During his tenure at Miramonte, Berndt had reportedly met his performance targets without a single disciplinary action taken against him. Outside of the classroom, he had also never been in trouble with the law for anything more serious than a traffic ticket.
However, all this would begin to unravel In October 2010 after a technician at a CVS drugstore came across a set of disturbing photographs of school boys and girls depicted in off situations. The film processor notified the Redondo Beach Police Department. On December 2, 2010, the Redondo police turned the 40 photographs over to the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Office.
In some of the photographs, Berndt either has his arm around a third grade boy or girl, or his hand covering their mouths. Some photographs show children with live bugs crawling on their faces. Others were either blindfolded, or have their mouths covered with clear tape. Some of the girls are depicted holding spoons containing a white liquid up to their mouths. Children are also pictured about to eat cookies topped with the teacher’s semen. Investigators would later find a plastic spoon in the trashcan of Berndt’s classroom containing traces of his semen.
Detectives started identifying the students in the photographs for interview. On January 3, 2011, a detective showed up at Miramonte to question Berndt. The teacher refused to speak to the investigator without first consulting with an attorney.
A former fourth grade student of Berndt’s, a woman now 30, told detectives that in 1990, she and two other girls spoke to a school counselor about their teacher’s odd, inappropriate behavior. They had seen him, seated at his desk at the front of the room, “playing with himself”. The counselor accused the girls of making up the story.
As a result, nothing came of their complaint. In 1993, police investigators looked into similar complaints against Berndt. The Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office, on grounds the police had not gathered sufficient evidence against the teacher, decided not to pursue the case. Presumably, school officials knew of the investigation.
Shortly after Berndt refused to be interviewed by the police, school administrators removed him from the classroom. A month later, February 2011, they fired him – although technically he was not fired; school officials induced him to retire by offering him $40,000 which he accepted. While the parents of the children depicted in the photographs were told of the investigation, the police kept the public in the dark.
On January 30, 2012, following a 13 month investigation, the case went public with Berndt’s arrest at his home in Torrance. A search of his dwelling resulted in the discovery of 400 photographs similar to the ones seen by the CVS employee. Charged with 23 counts of lewd acts against minors, Brendt was taken to jail where he was held on $23 million bond.
A lawyer representing “Jane Doe 1,” one of Berndt’s victims who ate a sugar cookie laced with the teacher’s semen, announced plans to sue the Los Angeles Unified School District. The plaintiff claimed that the school district did not take adequate steps to prevent Berndt from repeatedly abusing his students after numerous complaints had been filed against him. Following Berndt’s arrest, seven more students came forward with allegations of abuse.
On February 6, 2012, perhaps in response to allegations of an institutional cover-up, the 88 teachers and 40 staff employees at Miramonte were suspended with pay. They were replaced by a substitute crew of teachers and clerks.
The Miramonte situation continued to worsen on February 7, 2012, when the mother of a former fourth grader told the Los Angeles Times that in 2009, a 50-year-old female teacher’s aide wrote three love letters to her then 11-year-old son. One of the letters read, “…when you get close to me, even if you give me the chills, I like that. Don’t tell nobody (oh boy) about this!”
In November 2013, Mark Berndt pleaded no contest to 23 counts of lewd acts on children. The judge sentenced the 62-year-old former elementary teacher to 25 years in prison. According to Berndt’s defense attorney, his client was “remorseful and apologetic.” The lawyer said that Berndt had entered a plea to spare his victims the ordeal of a trial.
It is hoped that with the recent settlement agreed to by the Los Angeles Unified School District that the legal battles surrounding the case have now come to a conclusion. However, despite the financial compensation, the victims families maintain that it will do little to ease the pain and suffering caused to Berndt’s young victims.