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Ex-Miramonte Elementary School teacher investigated 18 years ago

February 2, 2012 12:00:00 AM PST
The former South Los Angeles teacher accused of child molestation was investigated by police 18 years ago for alleged inappropriate sexual conduct.

The sheriff's special victims unit confirmed Thursday that Mark Berndt was under suspicion in 1994. The incident involved a 9-year-old girl at Miramonte Elementary School, who told investigators that Berndt tried to fondle her inside a classroom in September 1993.

"The victim reported that while sitting in the classroom at a table, the suspect, Mark Berndt, reached under the table toward her genitals, which were covered with clothing, and she pushed his hand away," said Sgt. Dan Scott of the L.A. County Sheriff's Department.

Scott said the girl waited two months before telling her mother about the alleged incident.

"After watching a television show on good touch, bad touch and child abuse, she told her mother," Scott said.

A spokeswoman for the district attorney says Berndt wasn't charged because there was not enough evidence to prove that a crime had occurred.

The alleged incident has nothing to do with the current case against Berndt, but the news has parents outraged that he was allowed to remain at the school. Parent Tamira Long said she is considering pulling her child out of the school.

"You don't know how long this has been going on. He's been here for 30 years," Long said.

LAUSD Superintendent John Deasy could not be reached for immediate comment, but he was quoted in the L.A. Times as saying that the district had no records of the investigation in 1994, which did little to reassure parents at Miramonte Elementary.

"I feel like if they would investigate him more in that situation, not a lot of innocent souls would have been in this place right now," said parent Jessica Jiminez.

There were other reports from 1991 that students noticed that Berndt's hands were often on his lap hidden behind his desk, where he also kept a jar of Vaseline. These observations were relayed to school staff, but students said their stories were not taken seriously.

"The counselor had just told her, 'Oh, just don't invent stories.' They let it go away instead of investigating the teacher more for this," said one parent.

The 61-year-old Berndt was arrested Monday at his home in Torrance. He was in court on Tuesday, where his bail was set at $23 million.

Berndt is charged with 23 acts of lewd conduct with a child and faces life in prison if convicted. Prosecutors say he took photos of his students where they were blindfolded and gagged. In some cases, he allegedly held spoons of semen to their mouths.

And it is all alleged to have occurred in his classroom during regular school hours.

Berndt was removed from the classroom as soon as the investigation started last year. He was fired by the district, but he was able to appeal being fired. He then resigned and therefore retained his lifelong health benefits and pension, which amounts to $3,900 per month. State retirement officials say that cash flow could continue even if Berndt is convicted.

Police said 10 children in the photos have not been identified. The alleged crimes happened between 2005 and 2010. Anyone with information is urged to contact the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department at (877) 710-LASS.