AirTalk for February 1, 2012

Many unanswered questions in child abuse case

Teacher Classroom Bondage

Damian Dovarganes/AP

Students are escorted to a waiting bus as they leave Miramonte Elementary school after classes Jan. 31, 2012. Veteran Miramonte Elementary school teacher Mark Berndt, 61, was arrested Monday on charges of lewd conduct with 23 children after a film processor gave police photos showing blindfolded children with their mouths taped and cockroaches on their faces.

Mark Berndt appeared in court today on charges that he committed lewd acts on 23 boys and girls, ages 6 to 10, between 2008 and 2010. The Miramonte third grade school teacher was arrested Monday at his home in Torrance and was being held on $23 million bail. He allegedly gagged students with tape, putting 3-inch long Madagascar cockroaches on their faces and in their mouths and forcing them to taste semen.

Sgt. Dan Scott of the Special Victim’s Bureau said investigators did not have a case until they identified Berndt’s semen on a spoon that appeared in photographs.

"There are children that are subject to what everybody would agree is inappropriate behavior, but not a crime. These children are smiling; they seem to be enjoying these games, this ruse that this teacher was playing on them. Yes, they had their eyes blindfolded, but that could have easily been in a game of hide and seek or pin the tail on the donkey."

Officials received the case on Dec. 2, 2010, after a Redondo Beach photo technician saw one of Berndt’s photographs fall out of a CVS developing machine in October. The photos were eventually traced to the Miramonte teacher. Detectives could not respond till Jan. 3 of the next year, when the children were back from holiday break. A search of Berndt’s classroom led to the discovery of the blue spoon.

According to Scott, interviewed victims said “that these were games that were being played, that the reward was to have a treat, whether it was a cookie, or they said a spoonful of what they described as a sweet substance. They said it was a white, milky, clearish substance, and that it was like sugar water."

It took months before detectives received results from DNA testing. "This is not television. So yes, DNA [testing] was done, but it took several months to get it back that it was in fact semen," Scott said.

Some parents complained yesterday that officials at the South Los Angeles school should have notified them when photos depicting the abuse were found in 2010.

Gloria Polanco, the mother of two children at the school asks why, if the principal knew this in advance, he didn't he inform parents. "How long has he been doing this?'' asked Polanco. Scott said the purpose of withholding information about the case from parents was to prevent what is called “cross-contaminating witness accounts.”

"You have to worry about cross-contamination. If you start having parents conducting interviews of their own children, and you have parents then calling other parents and children telling other children, then it doesn't become what happened to you, it becomes what did you see happen, and then it gets very confusing," he said.

Scott also noted that they had enough evidence to identify victims, so it was unnecessary to inform a large crowd and get bombarded. He added that parents of victims were promptly told about the investigation after their child’s interview.

About 400 photos were found at Berndt's home and at the photo lab during subsequent searches. It's not clear how many different children were pictured. According to Scott, several additional parents have come forward that believe their children to be victims. He is unsure about how many, and whether or not they were involved with Berndt's ruse.

WEIGH IN:

Was it appropriate for the district or law enforcement to wait so long to tell parents about the teacher’s alleged crimes? Mark Berndt challenged his firing by the district but finally in June resigned from the district, which allowed him to retain his lifetime health benefits and his state teachers pension. Should he be able to collect his pension and benefits if he in convicted?

Guest:

Scott Gold, reporter for the Los Angeles Times

Sergeant Dan Scott, Special Victim’s Bureau, Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department; Scott was at the town hall meeting at the school this morning.


With contributions by Andrea Wang

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