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Ex-Miramonte teacher pleads not guilty to felony molestation

February 21, 2012 12:00:00 AM PST
Former Miramonte Elementary School teacher Mark Berndt pleaded not guilty on Tuesday to charges of committing lewd acts on nearly two dozen children. He appeared in court wearing an orange jumpsuit with his wrists shackled to his waist.

Berndt entered his plea through his public defender, Victor Acevedo. He also requested a shave and haircut at the jail.

Afterward, Acevedo lashed out at sheriff's deputies working at the Twin Towers Correctional Facility jail downtown, saying they have been harassing Berndt.

"The sheriff's department in Twin Towers, which is where my client is currently housed, has essentially used the loudspeaker system to identify him as a child molester to other inmates," said Victor Acevedo.

Acevedo says the jail staff is purposely trying to make his client look haggard, by denying him a razor and haircut. And Acevedo says jailers named Berndt's specific dorm to other inmates.

"We cannot have the sheriff's department deputies acting in such a way to essentially put a bull's-eye on his head, so to speak," said Acevedo.

L.A. County Sheriff's Dept. Spokesman Steve Whitmore denied Acevedo's claims and said deputies are not allowed to make those kinds of announcements, but said the department would investigate.

Berndt was arraigned on felony charges of committing lewd acts against 23 children ages 7 to 10 years old from 2005 to 2011.

Prosecutors turned over 500 pages of evidence to Berndt's attorney. Acevedo says the public should withhold judgment until all the facts in the case are known. Acevedo said in many of these cases the accusations were false. Acevedo says he looks forward to his day in court.

The 61-year-old was a third-grade teacher and taught at the school in Florence for 30 years. He is accused of taking disturbing pictures of his students in bondage situations.

Police said they have discovered hundreds of bondage-style photos of Berndt's students. The pictures depicted children in a classroom with their eyes blindfolded and mouths covered with tape.

Some children had live large cockroaches on their faces, and others had spoonfuls of Berndt's alleged semen to their mouths. Two children claim to have eaten cookies with his semen on it, but those allegations are being included in a separate civil case and not the criminal case.

Berndt was fired a year ago from the school while being investigated. He was arrested on Jan. 30 and is being held on $23 million bail. He is scheduled to return to the same court for a preliminary hearing on March 28.

Also on Monday, a preliminary hearing was scheduled in the case of a former Telfair Elementary School teacher.

Paul William Chapel is charged with 16 counts of child molestation.

He's accused of molesting four children while working as a third-grade teacher at the school in Pacoima. At least one of the alleged victims is believed to have been a student at the school.

Chapel was removed from his job when the allegations surfaced last spring. He was arrested in October.

LAUSD has come under fire for these recent molestation cases. Several teachers in the district have been accused of molestation, including a second Miramonte teacher, Martin Springer, who was arrested less than a week after Berndt.

In response, some parents have been calling for Superintendent John Deasy's resignation. He has not done so, but has released a video calling for more child sex abuse training for everyone in the district.

Deasy also said all of Miramonte's teachers and staff will return to work once the investigations are complete.