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One child may be the victim of two Miramonte teachers

She gave her parents photos she said were taken by suspect Mark Berndt, and later said she was touched inappropriately by Martin Bernard Springer.

February 04, 2012|By Sam Allen, Richard Winton and Howard Blume, Los Angeles Times
  • Concerned parents gather in front of Miramonte Elementary School in the Florence-Firestone neighborhood to talk with attorney Jim Gustafson about allegations against two teachers.
Concerned parents gather in front of Miramonte Elementary School in the… (Irfan Khan, Los Angeles…)

In 2008, a second-grader at Miramonte Elementary School went home from school 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.

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 that the photos might be part of a class project.

The girl was later transferred to the classroom of Martin Bernard Springer. The father said that shortly thereafter, his daughter said Springer touched her on the leg and thigh.

The parents said they put the 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 took in the classroom showing the scenes.

Then on Friday, Springer was arrested after two students said he touched them improperly within the last three years.

Law enforcement sources said Saturday that detectives believe the girl whose parents complained was a victim of both Berndt and Springer.

She is one of the two students whose allegations led to Springer's arrest, and detectives have been investigating her accusations against Berndt as well, the sources said.

The detectives have seen records confirming that she was transferred from Berndt's class to Springer's, said sources who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the case is 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 on $23-million bail. His attorney has declined requests for comment. Springer is also in jail and could not be reached for comment.

The Times talked to the parents of the second-grader after being contacted by their attorney, Matthew McNicholas, who said he plans to file a claim against the Los Angeles Unified School District next week. 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.

In the photo with the cookie, the girl is looking up to her left and smiling. On the opposite side of the image, the hand of another child is feeding her the cookie. The father said he was disturbed by the image, although he said his daughter did not seem alarmed.

"I didn't like it at all. I thought, why would a teacher be taking pictures of my daughter?" the father said. The Times is not naming him to avoid identifying his daughter. "I got very upset right then and there."

The father said that when he confronted the principal, the educator said he was "pretty sure there's nothing wrong." The father said he requested that his daughter be switched to a different teacher. The principal replied that it would be very difficult, he said. During the meeting, the principal also asked if the father would give him the photos, but the father said he refused. The principal has since retired and could not be reached for comment.

Unsatisfied, the father stopped sending his daughter to school for a week.

School records provided by McNicholas, the attorney, show that the girl was moved from Berndt's class to Springer's on Sept. 8, 2008.

The father said that after his daughter told him that the teacher touched her, he made a complaint with local police but never heard back from authorities. The Times could not confirm on Saturday that a report had been filed on Springer at that time. Law enforcement sources said they are also looking for evidence that a report was taken.

The girl's parents are the second family to say that Berndt might have provided students with cookies that had semen on them. Last week, the father of one alleged victim told The Times his son was photographed eating a cookie that he thought had semen on top.

The father of the girl photographed with the cookie said that after his wife learned about the charges against Berndt, he found her at home crying on the floor. She showed him the photos of their daughter from 2008, which she had retrieved earlier in the day.

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