Judge denies bail reduction for ex Miramonte teacher

imageMark Berndt, 61, arrested on suspicion of committing lewd acts upon a child, faces 23 criminal counts involving children aged 7 to 10 years old.

A judge today refused to reduce the $23 million bail for Mark Berndt, the former Miramonte Elementary School teacher, accused of abusing nearly two dozen children.

The 61 year-old Berndt pleaded not guilty last month to 23 counts of committing a lewd act on a child.

Berndt’s public defender, Victor Acevedo, argued his client was not a flight risk, but according to a KNX radio report, the judge declined to lower the bail because some of his victims have been experiencing nightmares.

Berndt is due to appear in court on May 1st for a preliminary hearing.

Miramonte teacher pleads not guilty

Mark Berndt sat silently, staring straight ahead in a packed courtroom. Five sheriff’s deputies surrounded him. The former teacher appeared unkempt and unshaven in an orange jumpsuit.

Berndt is being held at the Twin Towers jail. His public defender, Victor Acevedo, accused the sheriff’s deputies of refusing to give Berndt a razor to shave. He also told the judge the deputies are broadcasting Berndt’s location on a loudspeaker to other inmates and calling him a “child molester.” Outside the courthouse, Acevedo told reporters about his concerns.

“The concern is for his personal safety. We cannot have the sheriff’s department deputies acting in such a way to essentially put a ‘bulls eye’ on his head, so to speak. So that is my concern,” said Acevedo.

imageSheriff’s spokesman Steve Whitmore says the department hadn’t heard of the allegations until today’s arraignment. He says the department will investigate the claims.

High-profile attorney Gloria Allred, representing one of the alleged victims, worried about the allegations, as well as the media surrounding the case.

“I think we all have a stake in making sure that the defendant has a fair trial. That’s very important, I’m sure, to the defense, to the prosecution, and most of all to the alleged victims,” said Allred. “And hopefully nothing will interfere with that so that he would not have then grounds for an appeal if, as, and when he were convicted.”

Berndt is facing twenty-three counts of lewd acts. He is alleged to have photographed students being bound and gagged, and with a white liquid believed to be his semen. Berndt’s attorney requested today that the prosecution turn over every photo it has in evidence, something the District Attorney is reluctant to do. Spokeswoman Sandi Gibbons says the defense will get all the photos involving victims already identified in the case. The judge will look at the other photos in private to determine if the defense has a right to view them.

“The judge has agreed to look in a camera at other photographs that the defense says they want but at this point in time, it is either unidentified children or children that have been identified late,” said Gibbons.

Gibbons declined to say whether there will be any new charges as other children are identified. The preliminary hearing is scheduled to take place on March 28.

Miramonte scandal affecting teachers

imageParents congregate outside Miramonte Elementary school last week after meeting with school officials.

The Los Angeles School District’s board of education voted unanimously today to fire a second teacher at Miramonte Elementary in South LA. Martin Springer was arrested Friday and charged with three counts of committing a lewd act on a child.

Former Miramonte teacher Mark Berndt was arrested earlier last week.

The two arrests prompted school Superintendent John Deasy to replace Miramonte’s entire staff: 128 people.

The decisive action is meant to appease outraged parents and assist sheriff’s deputies with the investigation.

But the issue of broken trust may be taking an emotional toll on overwhelmed teachers.

Deasy has said every adult who works at Miramonte will be interviewed. During a press conference, he emphasized that the teacher’s relocation doesn’t mean they’ve done anything wrong.

Allan Green, Professor of Clinical Education at USC’s Rossier School of Education says that message may not be clear for the relocated teachers.

“I have to imagine that the entire community at Miramonte is in a state of disequilibrium. The allegations and the events that have taken place over the last week or so have really shocked the school… to its core.”

imageMiramonte Elementary principal Martín Sandoval talked to reporters the day after the arrest of teacher Mark Berndt.

LAUSD officials have said they will provide counselors for the Miramonte teachers while the investigation continues.

Professor Green says the emotional impact on the teachers shouldn’t be dismissed. Many of them have developed relationships and attachments to their students.

“Their reaction is going to be like any human being. There’s going to be anger, frustration, maybe some guilt in the form of did I do enough to protect everyone, or should I have noticed something.”

The LA teacher’s union (UTLA) would not give interviews on the relocation of the educators, but in a statement said they support “thorough, vigorous and fair investigation of all allegations.”

The school is shut down for two days to and will reopen on Thursday morning with replacement teachers.

As part of the overhaul at Miramonte, classes will now be taught by a two person team – an instructor and a counselor, to help students focus on learning.

Miramonte Elementary holds parent town hall after teacher’s arrest

imageParents congregate outside Miramonte Elementary school.

School officials organized a town hall meeting early this morning to talk to parents about the investigation and arrest of former teacher Mark Berndt, who faces 23 felony counts of lewd acts with a child and is currently held on $23 million bail – $1 million for each criminal count. He’s due back in court on February 21st to enter his plea to the charges.

Ninety-seven percent of Miramonte Elementary’s student body is Latino. Most parents are only Spanish-language speakers, so school officials brought in Spanish-language teachers, advisors and investigators to address their concerns.

According to school principal Martín Sandoval, the purpose of the meeting was to give parents the opportunity to talk to sheriff’s investigators, to encourage them to talk to their children about what happened and have them come forward if they experienced any inappropriate contact with the teacher.

imageMiramonte Elementary principal Martín Sandoval talks to reporters.

“We have a crisis team on school grounds and we’ve informed teachers on how they must deal with and help students who are upset,” says Sandoval, who joined the school in 2008.

Parents are furious that they only learned about the criminal investigation of the teacher a year after he was removed from the classroom.
“When investigators showed us the pictures demonstrating contact unbecoming of a teacher, we immediately pulled him out of the classroom,” explains the school principal. “As an administrator, I had to cooperate with the authorities and not interfere with the investigation. But we did contact parents of students in his classroom.”

Investigators were at the school throughout the day to answer parents’ questions about the investigation and possibly record any complaints from other potential victims.

Lt. Carlos Marquez, from the LA Sheriff’s Department says the investigation took as long as it did because it was a difficult case. “We had to work on identifying the children. Once we started talking to them, at first the kids said they thought they were playing a game with the teacher. They didn’t realize what he was doing was wrong. We also had to get his DNA and get the lab results. Contrary to what you see on those TV shows, it takes months to get DNA results.”

imageLt. Marquez from the LA Sheriff’s Special Victims Unit speaks with other investigators at Miramonte Elementary.

Lt. Marquez says they didn’t make the investigation public because it was important to prevent any cross-contamination. They wanted to make sure students didn’t share details with each other which may have tainted the case.

So far, 26 children in about 300 photographs have been identified. Of those, only 23 have been determined to be actual victims. Ten other children have yet to be identified.

The lewd acts committed against the children in the photographs appear to have taken place between 2008 and 2010. But Berndt had been teaching at the school for 30 years. Lt. Marquez recognizes there is a possibility more children have been victimized in previous years. “Since news broke about Berndt, our phone has been ringing non-stop. We’ve gotten numerous calls from students of his from past years saying that they have information regarding a case.”

He points out that in some instances there could be a statute of limitations, depending on how long ago they took place. However, “because of the severity of the case, the statute can go back more than 10 years. Even if we can’t file a charge, the testimony can help the case,” states Lt. Marquez.

imageMark Berndt, 61, a teacher at Miramonte Elementary for 30 years, is in jail on $23 million bail.

Not all the children depicted in the photos were his students, but they all attended the school. Dalia Gutierrez showed up at Miramonte this morning extremely upset. She claims her 10 year-old daughter Nancy, who now attends a different school, was not one of Berndt’s students, but she was one of his innocent victims.

“I’m so angry,” she exclaims. “How could he have done this to our children and nobody know about it? Yesterday, my daughter saw his picture in the news and she came to ask me why they were arresting the teacher, because he was a nice man. She told me he would offer her ice cream and cookies.”

Gutierrez says she came to the school this morning to report what happened to the authorities.

Her daughter Nancy says the teacher invited her three times to his classroom. “He was nice. When we used to see a movie, he gave me ice cream.” The child claims that on one occasion, he gave her a cookie with some “white stuff on it” that he took from a cabinet and that it didn’t taste good.

Berndt was caught because a film processor saw the photos and turned them over to authorities. Lt. Marquez admits it would have taken much longer to uncover the truth if the teacher would have used a digital camera to record his interaction with the children.

Investigators are trying to determine if any photos are stored in Berndt’s school laptop or if he shared any images. That computer is currently in a forensic lab.