9/30/2014

Currently

77°F

Clear
Humidity: 37%
Pressure: 29.78 in

Local & Regional

Teacher pleads no contest to lewd acts on students

Teacher pleads no contest to lewd acts on students
Former Los Angeles teacher Mark Berndt, 62, is seen during his change-of-plea hearing in Los Angeles Friday, Nov. 15, 2013. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)
Show Caption
LOS ANGELES (AP) — A once-respected former teacher accused of committing lewd acts on children in what authorities said he called "tasting games" pleaded no contest Friday to all the charges against him as victims' family members tearfully told him he had ruined their lives.

Mark Berndt, 62, entered the legal equivalent of guilty pleas to 23 counts of committing lewd acts on children. Under a plea deal, the former teacher at Miramonte Elementary School in Los Angeles was immediately sentenced to 25 years in prison.

Berndt was accused of blindfolding students while spoon-feeding them semen-laced cookies and sometimes putting huge cockroaches on them.

Before Berndt was sentenced, a parade of sobbing mothers denounced him, saying he had ruined their lives and the lives of their daughters. The women were not named in court.

They said they could not understand how the school district did not know about the incidents.

Some said their daughters could no longer eat cookies or anything sweet unless they knew their mothers had baked the items for them. They spoke of girls who had now become unable to socialize and locked themselves in their bedrooms.

Defense attorney Manny Medrano said Berndt is remorseful and apologetic and that he had chosen to enter his plea to avoid causing pain to the children during a trial.

"The last thing Mr. Berndt wanted was to see 23 child witnesses have to walk through this gate to the witness stand," Medrano said, noting that his client will serve 19 1/2 years in prison due to time served current statutes.

Berndt, his hands shackled and wearing an orange jail uniform, showed no reaction during the mothers' statements and stared straight ahead.

John Manly, an attorney who represents 30 of Berndt's students and their parents, said Thursday that he was notified of the plea by prosecutors, who urged a deal because "they were concerned about re-traumatizing the children at trial."

He called the agreement a victory for his clients.

"He's going to jail essentially for the rest of his life," Manly said. "You can't ask for more than that."

Sean Rossall, a district spokesman, said 63 lawsuits filed on behalf of victims have been settled for a total of $29.5 million, and 71 others are pending.

He said the district had not seen the plea agreement and wouldn't comment until it was entered in court.

Berndt, who taught for 32 years at the South Los Angeles school, was removed in 2011.

The allegations against him came to light when a drugstore photo technician noticed dozens of odd photos of blindfolded third-graders and reported them to authorities. Investigators said they discovered a plastic spoon in Berndt's classroom trash bin. Tests found traces of semen on it.

The case led to a wide-ranging overhaul of how the nation's second-largest school district handles allegations of sexual abuse after it was revealed that previous complaints about Berndt's behavior were ignored. It also showed how slowly state officials act to censure teachers and led to a flurry of allegations of teacher-student sex abuse in the district and in other school systems.

Shortly after Berndt's arrest, the school district temporarily removed all 76 of the school's teachers, along with staff and administrators, putting them on leave and having them report to an empty high school nearby. Six months later, when the new school year began, 43 of them returned to a restructured Miramonte with a new principal. The rest either retired or went to new schools. None was accused of any wrongdoing.

Manly denounced the district for allowing Berndt to continue teaching after complaints in the 1990s.

Another Miramonte teacher, Martin Springer, is charged with lewd acts on a child in a case involving a second-grader that authorities said was fondled in class in 2009. Springer is awaiting trial.
Share:
Brothers arrested in Bakersfield murder investigation Brothers arrested in Bakersfield murder investigation