Teacher Mark Berndt taught at Miramonte Elementary school in Florence-Firestone… (Al Seib / Los AngelesTimes )
Mark Berndt, the teacher accused of committing lewd acts against nearly two dozen elementary school children, was the target of a police investigation 18 years ago when a female student reported that he had tried to fondle her, authorities said.
The alleged incident occurred in September 1993, though officials said the girl did not tell her mother about it until four months later, after seeing an episode of "The Oprah Winfrey Show" that explained the difference between "good touches" and "bad touches."
The mother informed school administrators, who notified the L.A. County Sheriff's Department. The department turned over the case to the district attorney in February 1994, but prosecutors dropped the matter after determining "that the evidence was insufficient to prove a crime occurred," they said in a written statement Thursday.
FOR THE RECORD:
The headline on an earlier version of this article said the investigation was in 1993; it took place in 1994.
The revelations raise new questions about whether other people had previously come forward to make allegations against Berndt. Until now, both sheriff's officials and Los Angeles Unified School District leaders have said they knew of no complaints made about Berndt.
Sheriff's Sgt. Dan Scott said he came across the old investigation Wednesday evening during a records search. He said the girl, who was 10 or 11, told a detective that she was taking a test at her desk when Berndt reached toward her genitals and she pushed his hand away.
Since Berndt was arrested Monday, two women who identified themselves as former students said in interviews with The Times that they saw him appear to touch himself behind his desk during class. One of the women, Marlene Trujillo, said that during the 1990-91 school year, she and two other fourth-grade girls were called before a school counselor after one of the girls complained.
They were told to stop making up stories, said Trujillo, now a 30-year-old paralegal.
L.A. schools Supt. John Deasy has assembled an internal investigative team to examine Berndt's case and determine if the district has any records of past incidents or suspicions about Berndt, who taught at Miramonte Elementary School for three decades. So far, nothing has turned up, Deasy said.
He did confirm, however, that he too had learned of an incident that occurred "sometime in the 1990s" and led to a police investigation.
"I don't have any records in the district of it," he said. "It's in the sheriff's office."
The lack of documentation within the district is not unusual because of when the incidents occurred, the law on reporting potential molestation and standard employee safeguards against potentially false accusations, said David Holmquist, general counsel for the district.
At the same time, "We're looking everywhere we can think of," he said.
An allegation found to be without basis would not become part of a teacher's permanent employment record.
And although anyone working at a school is required to report any suspicion of abuse or molestation to either the police or county social services, there is no requirement that it be reported to a school district supervisor. That provision was designed as a protection for whistle-blowers and to prevent the possibility of a supervisor trying to stop an investigation.
"We want to be told, but it isn't required," Holmquist said.
For years, even when the district was informed of an allegation, the school system didn't require administrators to keep a record of it. A principal or other supervisor could place a report in an employee's file, but the employee could petition to have the "write-up" removed if evidence to support it was lacking.
Ambiguous district policies and inconsistent practices resulted in suspected molesters remaining in schools and, eventually, in costly lawsuits for the school district. In one case, Steve Thomas Rooney, a teacher and administrator, was investigated by police for a sexual relationship with a student. But no charges were ever filed because by the time it came to light, the student was no longer a minor and wouldn't testify. The district failed to follow up with police or conduct its own investigation, and Rooney kept his job. He was arrested in 2007 on suspicion of molesting other students and convicted in 2009.
"The Rooney case is when I got involved in a lot of this," Holmquist said. "Prior to that time, we did not communicate well with law enforcement."
In the aftermath, L.A. Unified keeps central records of molestation reports and has established closer ties with the Los Angeles Police Department. And internal investigations routinely follow police inquiries, whether or not charges are filed.
The charges against Berndt, 61, cover a five-year period.
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.
Authorities were alerted in late 2010 by a CVS photo lab technician in the South Bay who was processing Berndt's film. Detectives say they have seized more than 400 photographs from Berndt, including pictures of children — some of them smiling, others blindfolded with spoons near their mouths.
Berndt remains in jail on $23-million bail. His public defender has declined to comment.
School district officials said he was removed from the classroom in January 2011, immediately after detectives showed them some of the photos. He was fired at a 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 state pension.