iOS app Android app More

Mark Berndt Arrest: Officials Question How Los Angeles Teacher's Alleged Child Abuse Went Undetected

GREG RISLING   02/ 2/12 09:17 PM ET  AP

Mark Berndt
Mark Brendt could face several life sentences.

LOS ANGELES — Prosecutors declined to file attempted fondling charges 18 years ago against an elementary school teacher now suspected of taking bondage-style photographs of children in his class, saying that they didn't have enough evidence.

The investigation came after a 10-year-old girl claimed elementary school teacher Mark Berndt reached toward her genitals during class and she pushed his hand away, sheriff's Sgt. Dan Scott said Thursday.

The details of the case and other claims by two former students about strange behavior by Berndt surfaced just three days after his arrest.

The allegations raised further questions about why he wasn't disciplined by school officials, who have been lambasted by some parents for waiting a year to reveal Berndt was suspected of photographing children for sexual thrills.

Only parents of children identified as victims were told by authorities about the most recent investigation.

School officials and investigators said proper procedures were followed to investigate and build a case against the teacher.

Scott said the incident involving the 10-year-old girl occurred in September 1993 but wasn't reported by her mother to officials at Miramonte Elementary School until the following January, after her daughter had seen an "Oprah" show about inappropriate touching.

School officials notified the Los Angeles County sheriff's department, which submitted evidence to prosecutors. They opted not to file a charge of committing a lewd act on a minor under the age of 14. Berndt was never arrested.

"Based on what I read, it was a thorough and complete investigation," said Scott, who noted the investigator who handled the case has retired.

Sandi Gibbons, a district attorney spokeswoman, said in a statement the case was rejected because there was insufficient evidence to prove a crime had occurred. The statement did not elaborate.

Berndt denied the allegation at the time.

Earlier, two women who said they were former students of Berndt told the Times that complaints were made about his odd behavior as far back as 1990.

Los Angeles Unified School District Supt. John Deasy told the newspaper he was struggling to determine how the alleged behavior went undetected for so long.

"How do I make sense out of the fact that this took place over a number of years and no one seemed to know about that?" Deasy said. "I'm definitely trying to understand how someone could not have known."

Berndt, 61, remained jailed on $23 million bail on felony charges of committing lewd acts on 23 boys and girls, ages 6 to 10, between 2005 and 2010. He could face multiple life sentences if convicted.

Using a cheap camera, Berndt is suspected of snapping nearly 400 photographs of Miramonte students, some with a giant Madagascar cockroach from a classroom terrarium on their faces.

Others were blindfolded or had clear tape over their mouths, and some were given sperm-laced cookies to eat as treats in the photo sessions that were treated like games, Scott said.

Some of Berndt's students defended him, saying he was a kind and generous teacher.

Angelica Zuniga, a 16-year-old high school junior, was in third grade in 2003 when she had Berndt as a teacher. She said he never asked her or others to do anything strange or to play any inappropriate games.

"They're calling him `monster.' He's just not that kind of person," Angelica said. "He was one of the most amazing teachers out there. He's dedicated his life to us, and I want to stick up for him."

The latest investigation of Berndt began in the fall of 2010 when a film processor became suspicious about the photographs and turned them over to Redondo Beach police, who on Dec. 2, 2010, handed them over to the sheriff's department, Scott said.

Berndt, who taught at Miramonte for more than 30 years ago, was removed from classwork in January 2011 and fired within the month.

___

Associated Press writers Robert Jablon and Raquel Maria Dillon contributed to this report.

Loading Slideshow...
  • Nine-year-old Ashley Villatoro, left, holds a poster showing an image of former teacher Martin B. Springer as students arrive at Miramonte Elementary School in Los Angeles, Thursday, Feb. 9, 2012. Children are returning to the school where the entire staff has been replaced following the arrests of two former teachers on charges of committing lewd acts with students in class. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

  • Nine-year-old Ruby Garduno, right, holds a sign as students enter Miramonte Elementary School in Los Angeles on Thursday, Feb. 9, 2012. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

  • Kathryn Kidd, center, distribute bracelets to students outside Miramonte Elementary School in Los Angeles on Thursday, Feb. 9, 2012. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

  • Nine-year-old Ashley Villatoro, center, holds a sign showing images of former teacher Martin B. Springer outside Miramonte Elementary School in Los Angeles, Thursday, Feb. 9, 2012. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

  • An adult accompanies two students into Miramonte Elementary School in Los Angeles on Thursday, Feb. 9, 2012. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

  • A mother who declined to give her name walks with her daughter outside Miramonte Elementary School in Los Angeles, Thursday, Feb. 9, 2012. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

  • Los Angeles Unified School District administrators, counselors and new teachers gather at the Miramonte Elementary school in Los Angeles on Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2012. Allegations of teacher lewd behavior comes as school district administrators move to replace the entire staff at Miramonte Elementary School while the Los Angeles Unified School District investigates two teachers arrested last week. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

  • Student Stephanie Perez, left, reacts, as she demands to keep her teacher, along with friend, Ruby Garduno, as some parents gather to show support for teachers outside the Miramonte Elementary school in Los Angeles on Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2012. Allegations of teacher lewd behavior comes as school district administrators move to replace the entire staff at Miramonte Elementary School while the Los Angeles Unified School District investigates two teachers arrested last week. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

  • Los Angeles Unified School District board president Monica Garcia makes a statement following a closed-door meeting of the Board of Education in downtown Los Angeles Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2012. Prosecutors have filed a lewd-acts complaint against the second of two teachers removed from a Los Angeles-area elementary school, and the Board voted to fire him in the closed-door meeting. (AP Photo/Reed Saxon)

  • With portraits of school children behind him, Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent John Deasy takes his seat following a closed-door meeting of the Board of Education in downtown Los Angeles Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2012. (AP Photo/Reed Saxon)

  • Parent Maria Guadalupe Garcia holds a sign reading in Spanish: " We don't want new teachers," as some parents protest replacing the staff outside the Miramonte Elementary school in Los Angeles on Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2012. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

  • Parents and others protest outside Miramonte Elementary school in Los Angeles Monday, Feb. 6, 2012. About three dozen parents and supporters staged a protest at the Los Angeles-area school rocked by allegations of lewd conduct crimes by two teachers against children. They demanded greater communication with education officials and the placement of cameras in classrooms and hallways at Miramonte Elementary School. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

  • Ivis Urbina, right, with her granddaughter Alexa Agillon, 6, protest with others outside Miramonte Elementary school in Los Angeles Monday, Feb. 6, 2012. About three dozen parents and supporters staged a protest at the Los Angeles-area school rocked by allegations of lewd conduct crimes by two teachers against children. They demanded greater communication with education officials and the placement of cameras in classrooms and hallways at Miramonte Elementary School. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

  • Los Angeles Unified School District police guard the front door of Miramonte Elementary school as parents protest outside in Los Angeles on Monday, Feb. 6, 2012. About three dozen parents and supporters staged a protest at the Los Angeles-area school rocked by allegations of lewd conduct crimes by two teachers against children. They demanded greater communication with education officials and the placement of cameras in classrooms and hallways at Miramonte Elementary School. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

  • Parents bring their children to school as others protest outside Miramonte Elementary school in Los Angeles Monday, Feb. 6, 2012. About three dozen parents and supporters staged a protest at the Los Angeles-area school rocked by allegations of lewd conduct crimes by two teachers against children. They demanded greater communication with education officials and the placement of cameras in classrooms and hallways at Miramonte Elementary School. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

  • Edgar Flores, right, encourages other parents to join a protest outside Miramonte Elementary school in Los Angeles Monday, Feb. 6, 2012. About three dozen parents and supporters staged a protest at the Los Angeles-area school rocked by allegations of lewd conduct crimes by two teachers against children. They demanded greater communication with education officials and the placement of cameras in classrooms and hallways at Miramonte Elementary School. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

  • Attorney Luis Carrillo announces a claim against the school district on behalf of Dalia Gutierrez, the mother a girl who was an alleged victim of teacher Mark Berndt between 2008 and 2010, at the Miramonte Elementary school in Los Angeles Monday, Feb. 6, 2012. Berndt, 61, who worked at the school for 32 years, has charged with committing lewd acts on 23 children, ages 6 to 10, between 2005 and 2010. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

  • Dalia Gutierrez wears the coat of her attorney, Luis Carrillo, not shown, before announcing a claim for alleged abuse suffered by her daughter at Miramonte Elementary school in Los Angeles Monday, Feb. 6, 2012. Teacher Mark Berndt, 61, who worked at the school for 32 years, has charged with committing lewd acts on 23 children, ages 6 to 10, between 2005 and 2010. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

  • Yolanda Sanchez talks about what she describes as documented child abuse of her son, outside the Miramonte Elementary school in Los Angeles, Monday, Feb. 6, 2012. About three dozen parents and supporters staged a protest at the Los Angeles-area school rocked by allegations of lewd conduct crimes by two teachers against children. They demanded greater communication with education officials and the placement of cameras in classrooms and hallways at Miramonte Elementary School. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

  • Los Angeles County Sheriff's deputies stand outside Miramonte Elementary School in Los Angeles Monday, Feb. 6, 2012. About three dozen parents and supporters staged a protest at the Los Angeles-area school rocked by allegations of lewd conduct crimes by two teachers against children. They demanded greater communication with education officials and the placement of cameras in classrooms and hallways at Miramonte Elementary School. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

  • This 2003 photo provided by Flor Cervantes shows former Miramontes Elementary teacher Mark Berndt with her sister, Angelica Zuniga, then a third-grader, at the school in Los Angeles. Angelica Zuniga, 16, now a high school junior, said Berndt, who is now suspected of taking bondage-style photographs of children in his class, never asked her or others to do anything strange or to play any inappropriate games. (AP Photo/Flor Cervantes)

  • This 2003 photo provided by Flor Cervantes shows former Miramontes Elementary teacher Mark Berndt with her sister, Angelica Zuniga, holding a citizenship diploma given to her by Brendt, at the school in Los Angeles. Angelica Zuniga, 16, now a high school junior, said Berndt, who is suspected of taking bondage-style photographs of children in his class, never asked her or others to do anything strange or to play any inappropriate games. (AP Photo/Flor Cervantes)

  • This 2003 photo provided by Flor Cervantes shows former Miramontes Elementary teacher Mark Berndt with her sister, Angelica Zuniga, then a third-grader, at the school in Los Angeles. Angelica Zuniga, 16, now a high school junior, said Berndt, who is suspected of taking bondage-style photographs of children in his class, never asked her or others to do anything strange or to play any inappropriate games. (AP Photo/Flor Cervantes)

  • Miramonte Elementary school principal Martin Sandoval walks out to address the media outside the school in Los Angeles on Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2012. Veteran Miramonte Elementary school teacher Mark Berndt, 61, was arrested on charges of lewd conduct with 23 children after a film processor gave police photos showing blindfolded children with their mouths taped and cockroaches on their faces. Berndt, 61, not seen, was arrested Jan. 30, 2012 and remained jailed Tuesday on $2.3 million bail. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

  • The Miramonte Elementary school's principal, Martin Sandoval speaks to the media outside his school in Los Angeles on Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2012. Veteran Miramontes Elementary school teacher Mark Berndt, 61, was arrested on charges of lewd conduct with 23 children after a film processor gave police photos showing blindfolded children with their mouths taped and cockroaches on their faces. Berndt, 61, not seen, was arrested Jan. 30, and remained jailed Tuesday on $2.3 million bail. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

  • A student enters into Miramontes Elementary School in Los Angeles on Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2012. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

  • Students are escorted to a waiting bus as they leave Miramonte Elementary school after classes Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2012 in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

  • Police are seen at the The Miramonte Elementary school in Los Angeles on Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2012. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

FOLLOW HUFFPOST CRIME

Filed by Steven Hoffer  |