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Miramonte teacher sentenced to 25 years in prison for lewd conduct

Elementary school teacher Mark Berndt, who was accused of acts such as feeding semen to children, pleads no contest to 23 counts.

November 15, 2013|By Richard Winton and Stephen Ceasar

Mark Berndt, the teacher who committed lewd acts against nearly two dozen Los Angeles schoolchildren, was sentenced Friday to 25 years in prison after facing the parents of his victims, many of whom berated him for stealing the innocence of their children.

Berndt, who taught at Miramonte Elementary School for three decades, pleaded no contest to 23 counts of lewd conduct. The allegations against him included spoon-feeding semen to blindfolded children as part of what he purportedly called a "tasting game." He also was accused of feeding them cookies tainted with his semen and placing cockroaches on their faces.

In a downtown Los Angeles courtroom, Berndt remained silent and avoided eye contact with sobbing parents, who called him "vile" and an "animal." They said their children no longer sleep through the night, are scared of eating cookies and have lost their innocence. One said Berndt should be burned at the stake.

"Our lives have been destroyed by this.... I have been destroyed. She has been destroyed," one mother told the court. Another mother said: "I wake up every morning asking God to give me strength to explain this to my daughter."

Berndt was arrested in January 2012 after a South Bay drugstore photo technician alerted authorities to images of children blindfolded, some with tape over their mouths. Using the more than 400 photos, authorities spent months tracking down students and conducted dozens of interviews. Ultimately, it was DNA from Berndt's saliva, and from a spoon and container with semen found in his classroom, that led to the charges.

He admits to elements of the crimes and is "profoundly sorry" for his actions, said defense attorney Manny Medrano.

Berndt, 62, was a dedicated educator beloved by many students and parents, Medrano said.

"The last thing Mr. Berndt wanted was to see 23 child witnesses have to walk though this gate to the witness stand," he said. The former teacher wanted to be clear that he never touched a child in an overtly sexual manner, Medrano said.

Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey said the plea "spares these young victims the anguish of testifying at a trial and sends an unmistakable message to those who dare take advantage of our children that justice will prevail."

Los Angeles Superior Court Judge George Lomeli said Berndt asked for less prison time, but the court refused.

"Understand that he is of a certain age and that the time that's going to be imposed by this court, 25 years, could potentially, coupled with his age, amount to a life sentence," Lomeli said.

With credit for time served and good behavior, Berndt could potentially be out of prison in 19 1/2 years.

The case prompted Los Angeles Unified School District Supt. John Deasy and other officials to push for legislation in Sacramento that would have sped up the teacher dismissal process. The bill was opposed by the California Teachers Assn., United Teachers Los Angeles and other teachers unions, which called it an attack on due process rights. It failed in committee.

Deasy spoke angrily to reporters Friday about the failed legislation, expressing frustration with the unions for their opposition to efforts that would make the dismissal process less cumbersome and less expensive in order to protect students.

"I'm not interested in adjusting or tweaking current laws so adult constituencies can feel comfortable," he said. "Really? Really? You're not comfortable with those changes? You feel discomfort? Come with me and spend time with some of the victims in Miramonte … that's discomfort. I think we can do much better."

When L.A. Unified officials learned of the police investigation, Berndt was fired. But he contested the dismissal and the district paid him $40,000 to drop his appeal — money Deasy said L.A. Unified should not have had to pay.

Soon after Berndt's arrest, a second Miramonte teacher, Martin Springer, was arrested on suspicion of sexual misconduct involving a female student. He has pleaded not guilty.

The allegations prompted a surge of legal action against L.A. Unified. The Miramonte case has led to payments of $29.54 million to settle lawsuits and claims from 63 students. The cases of 71 more students and 65 parents are still being litigated.

During the investigation, it came to light that there had been previous complaints against Berndt. A female student reported that he had tried to fondle her in 1993, but the case was dropped because of lack of evidence. And two former students, also now adults, came forward to say they had reported that Berndt appeared to touch himself inappropriately during class.

But Berndt's personnel file was clean, officials said, a discovery that led the district to review employee records going back decades. The district submitted or resubmitted for review hundreds of reports of alleged misconduct to the state Commission on Teacher Credentialing.

richard.winton@latimes.com

stephen.ceasar@latimes.com

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