This 2003 photo provided by Flor Cervantes shows former Miramontes Elementary teacher Mark Berndt with her sister, Angelica Zuniga, then a third-grader, at the school in Los Angeles. Angelica Zuniga, 16, now a high school junior, said Berndt, who is now suspected of taking bondage-style photographs of children in his class, never asked her or others to do anything strange or to play any inappropriate games. (AP Photo/Flor Cervantes)
Amid parents and teachers union protests, the Miramonte Elementary School campus reopened Thursday with an entirely new faculty and staff. At the same time, lawyers announced that they’ve filed civil lawsuits on behalf of three students that the L.A. County sheriff’s investigators have yet to interview.
Lawyer Greg Owen claims that now-resigned Miramonte teacher Mark Berndt fed his three plaintiffs sperm-laced cookies and photographed them with cockroaches on their faces. He’s listed Berndt, Berndt's former colleague Martin Springer, Miramonte’s principal and LAUSD as defendants.
The district is part of the complaint, he said, because of negligent supervision.
"This guy locked his doors," according to Owen. "That violates every single school policy. Yet nobody knew it, nobody stopped it. I would think that at an average school a principal or an assistant principal are supposed to drop in on classes, once, twice, three times a week. Apparently that never occurred here."
The parents of these girls didn’t approach sheriff’s investigators because they’re undocumented and they feared deportation. That’s the claim of the father of one of the alleged victims. He sat down next to Owen at a packed news conference, wearing a large dark hood pulled over his head and sunglasses to hide his identity.
He said he can’t sleep and has gone to the emergency room twice after bouts of anxiety and an accelerated heart rate after he found out about the alleged acts against his daughter.
Lawyers revealed new photos and letters from Berndt that they say investigators had missed. One photograph shows a closeup of a girl’s face with a cookie protruding from her mouth.
In other photos, students in a classroom and on the playground surround Berndt. All are wearing costumes. Berndt has on Mickey Mouse ears, snug blue running shorts, a black turtleneck and tights, white socks and black running shoes.
Lawyer Greg Owen says Berndt visited his victims at home.
"This is a birthday party that shows the little girl, the perpetrator next to the little girl, and the mom sitting next to the little girl," Owen alleged. "During this entire period of time, he’s molesting her daughter."
Lawyers called on the L.A. County sheriff to do more to ensure that other parents who haven’t testified will come forward.
Miramonte Elementary parents and their kids did their part to show up on the first day of classes after their school had been shut down for two days.
They protested LAUSD's transfer of all the school’s employees while police investigate the alleged abuse. Sally Rivera said her young son was crying as she walked him to school.
"I went to go check up on my son and everything’s quiet and different," said Rivera. "You know, I know they feel uncomfortable because they don’t know the teacher."
While Rivera’s son got used to his new teacher, the superintendent of LAUSD and the president of the teachers union engaged in a war of words over the way the district handled the alleged incidents at Miramonte Elementary.
The union claimed the district intends the teacher transfers to be permanent. District officials said that wasn’t true.
Superintendent Deasy told KPCC’s Patt Morrison he moved teachers to ensure a thorough investigation.
"One of the things we’re trying to determine is how parents and students didn’t come forward over all of these years," Deasy said on Thursday. "What was it that didn’t allow or encourage ... Because if we see the alleged volume of photographs, there’s hundreds."
United Teachers Los Angeles President Warren Fletcher took issue with Deasy’s suggestions.
"What we don’t do is we don’t, in the newspapers, make allegations that smear an entire faculty prior to the investigation," said Fletcher.
It’s unlikely that the two sides will quickly resolve their disagreements over the district’s actions and the Sheriff’s Department investigation. Lawyers say they plan to file at least five more civil lawsuits on behalf of students who say they are victims of teachers at the school.