In a shocking story from Los Angeles, former teacher Mark Berndt, 61, has been accused of molesting 23 children and taking inappropriate pictures of them over a two-year period. Berndt was arrested at his Torrance home on Monday after a year-long probe with a surprising beginning–a film processor turned in the inappropriate images to law enforcement. Berndt was fired from Miramonte Elementary School at the start of the investigation in January 2011. According to Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent John Deasy, there had been no complaints from parents or students, which has authorities reeling, wondering how this went on for so long. “I am disgusted beyond belief,” Deasy added. “I’m a dad as well as a superintendent and it’s horrifying.” In addition to being sexually explicit, the photos of the children are hideous in other ways: some depict them with large, live Madagascar-type cockroaches on their faces and over their mouths.
Special Victims Bureau detectives have recovered items from the trash in the classroom that matched items in the photographs, and they contained Mark Berndt’s DNA, suggesting that this activity could have taken place in the building, which is incomprehensible. Something needs to be done to increase supervision. The 23 victims that were identified, after authorities interviewed more than 80 current and former students, were between the ages of 6 and 10 when the abuse occurred, between 2008 and 2010. 390 photos were uncovered after detectives obtained a warrant to search Berndt’s home, and authorities are still working to identify ten of the victims. He is unmarried, has no children and no previous arrest record, and Deasy confirmed that there had not been a single complaint of abusive behavior while he was a teacher.
He also said that “crisis counseling and support have been provided for more than a year to the known victims and their families, and we continue to offer those necessary services to new victims as they are identified or any student or parents who requests assistance.” There is a crisis team in place at the elementary school that plans to visit the middle school as well, and Deasy stated that the district is reviewing their procedures to make sure that ostensibly empty classrooms are vacated at the end of the day. However, the school principal, Martin Sandoval, has stated that the photographs look like they were taken in his classroom during after school programs for which he volunteered. He should not have been the only adult in that room if the children were that young, particularly since parents are reporting that the classroom doors lock from the inside. Bizarrely, Sandoval doesn’t seem to see any problem with the doors being locked, and states, “it’s not against policy.” Berndt was being held on $2.3 million bail as of Tuesday. The disturbing nature of this story needs to motivate schools to take swifter action and to be much more vigilant.