A teacher newly assigned to Miramonte Elementary leads her students out… (Irfan Khan, Los Angeles…)
Until the photos surfaced, it didn't appear that anything was seriously amiss at Miramonte Elementary School.
The school was on the upswing. Test scores were rising. The campus south of downtown Los Angeles was bright with new paint, murals and $6 million in other improvements. A new principal brought in parent education workshops, student leadership programs and other activities. Even the neighborhood, notorious for gang violence and drugs, had calmed down.
Then came the bombshell: photos showing Miramonte schoolchildren blindfolded and gagged, pictured with spoons containing a milky substance that authorities allege was the semen of Mark Berndt, 61, a third-grade teacher who has been charged with 23 counts of lewd conduct with children. Another teacher, Martin Springer, was arrested on suspicion of three counts of lewd conduct.
The school's gains now seem endangered by the turmoil, and families, staff and neighbors are wrestling with the haunting question of how this could have happened.
Perhaps there wouldn't be signs at any school. A suspect intent on using children in these ways might be able to slide by largely unnoticed, experts say.
But Miramonte faces particularly challenging conditions. It is the second-largest elementary school in California and one of the last remaining on a year-round calendar, with teachers and nearly 1,500 students on different schedules.
Families in the area rank among the poorest in L.A County. Two-thirds of adults have no high school diploma and about a third are single parents, twice the rate in the county overall. Nearly half the residents are immigrants, most from Latin American countries, and half the students are English learners.
"Parents who are unfamiliar with the system or uncomfortable because they don't speak the language … or work two or three jobs may not be as attentive to their children's education," said Yolie Flores, a Los Angeles school board member at the time the photos surfaced last year; she voted then to fire Berndt.
California Federation of Teachers president Joshua Pechthalt said vigilance can be harder in large schools like Miramonte. "When you create schools that are so large, students can get lost academically and emotionally, and teachers can get lost," he said.
Parents, current and former students, residents and others say there are no easy answers.
Dora Gonzalez, for instance, is a Honduran immigrant whose fifth-grade daughter Nancy attends Miramonte.
She is an involved parent who studies English daily, is working toward her high school diploma, participates in most family education workshops and is quick to meet with teachers over academic problems. She quizzed her daughter regularly when she had a male teacher to make sure he made no inappropriate advances.
Yolanda Rivera, another immigrant mother, warned her two children when they enrolled in Miramonte to tell her if any teacher touched them with more than a pat on their back, a hug or kiss on the cheek.
The mothers never saw or heard anything that raised their suspicions. "There were no signs that anything was wrong at the school," Gonzalez said.
As far as anyone knows at this point, one parent showed a former principal a photo of his child eating a cookie, and two girls told a counselor that Berndt often moved his hands under his desk near his lap.
School officials did not find the complaints serious enough to report to law enforcement. Another girl reported that Berndt fondled her in 1993, but prosecutors dropped the case for insufficient evidence.
Berndt was a popular teacher, students said. Often clad in casual Hawaiian shirts and shorts, he was known to give out Popsicles and lollipops every week. He played dodge ball and kickball with the kids. He was light on homework and took the students on field trips, joked around and gave children special nicknames: "Crystal pistol" for Crystal Ramirez, 21, a former Berndt student, for example.
"Everyone wanted him for their teacher because he was cool and fun," said Aileen Godinez, a seventh-grader and former Miramonte student.
Many children loved Berndt's collection of insects — roaches, butterflies, ladybugs, dragonflies kept in containers on a classroom table. Ramirez recalled that Berndt's favorite subject was science, especially bugs. He read them books about insects and let the students play with them.
She said she never heard of, or participated in, any "tasting games," the name Berndt is said to have used in his alleged scheme to feed his semen to students in spoons. Some parents also suspect he smeared his semen on cookies he gave to the children.
Ramirez said she found a few unusual things about Berndt: the way he smeared Vaseline on his lips, his habit of putting his hand inside the waistband of his pants. He used to ask her to stay after school to work on reading, she said, but she never did.