In Miramonte, questions amid a sense of betrayal
Feb 4, 2012, 4:26 PM
LOS ANGELES (AP) – Mr. Berndt’s third-grade classroom was up on the second floor, tucked away at the rear of Miramonte Elementary School, its windows looking out onto a playground.
When he locked the door, the classroom became a private sanctum where authorities allege that the 61-year-old teacher spoon-fed his semen to blindfolded children in a bizarre sexual game he documented in photographs.
That room’s secluded location may help explain why Mark Berndt’s “tasting game,” as he called it, wasn’t detected sooner. But a crucial question remains: Why didn’t the children, and possibly their parents, tell anyone during a period spanning from 2005 to 2010?
“I’m in such shock,” Miguel Lopez, father of one of Berndt’s former pupils, said this week as he stood outside the school. “How could this happen?”
The answer is far from clear, but may lie partly in Berndt’s classroom character and the community of Miramonte itself, where he taught for three decades. As a playful teacher, he won the confidence of children. As an educated man, he earned the respect of parents _ mostly poor Latino immigrants who are often reluctant to complain out of fear of authority and a perception they won’t be taken seriously.
Miramonte Elementary strikes an imposing presence in the Florence-Firestone neighborhood, a collection of small bungalows surrounded by chain link fences. The large school is painted bright yellow and blue with murals depicting world leaders and Mayan motifs.
With 1,400 students, it’s so overcrowded it operates year-round on a staggered school start date. Over half the children are learning English and all receive free or reduced-price lunches.
Most of the families in this unincorporated section of Los Angeles County _ about six miles south of downtown _ are immigrants from Mexico and Central America _ some illegal _ who eke out livings mowing lawns and working on factory assembly lines.
Spanish is the predominant language here _ burger joints advertise 99-cent tacos, pupuserias sell El Salvador’s national food of corn-filled patties, stores display merchandise of used washing machines and plain wooden furniture on the sidewalks as in Guatemala City. It’s an insular neighborhood where people come from societies where authority generally isn’t questioned and they don’t want to make waves in a new place. College-educated school teachers are respected figures for local parents, many of whom have limited education.
That worked in Berndt’s favor, said Maria Polanco, who has two children at Miramonte.
“People are afraid to talk. They can’t express themselves well, they’re illegal,” she said. “He took advantage of that. The school officials think we’re ignorant. What do we do to be listened to?”
But the arrest of Berndt, who has been charged with 23 counts of lewd acts on children, may have spurred people to speak out. Four days after his arrest, the school was further roiled when a second teacher, Martin Springer, was arrested on suspicion of fondling two girls in his classroom, after students came forward. Additional complaints are coming in about Berndt, as well.
“We think they’re safe in school. We send them here,” said Maricela Suarez, a mother of three. “To think that this happened … we cannot trust the teachers anymore.”
By most accounts, Berndt, who taught at the school for 32 years, was a well-liked teacher who seemed quirky but harmless.
He dressed as Mickey Mouse, complete with tail and shorts, for the school’s Halloween festival, played comical tunes in class and gave out lollipops and popsicles. He loved to teach about nature and kept a collection of exotic Madagascar hissing cockroaches in a classroom fish tank that fascinated boys.
He took children on field trips and spoke to parents in broken Spanish, often nipping out of school to buy tamales from a neighborhood peddler.
Former student Angelica Zuniga, now a high school junior, said she thought of him as an older brother.
“He was one of the most amazing teachers out there,” she said. “He loved us and he never did anything disrespectful to me or made me feel uncomfortable.”
When he suddenly disappeared from his classroom a year ago, parents were upset, Suarez recalled.
That rapport Berndt cultivated may be the key to why he went unreported for so long, although several students had tried to complain about him decades ago to no avail.
One complaint to school officials in 1990 about his odd hand movements under his desk was treated dismissively, according to two former students who spoke to the Los Angeles Times, while the district attorney declined to prosecute a 1994 complaint that he tried to fondle a girl under her desk.
In recent years, prosecutors allege, he played the “tasting game” during and after class with his own students and sometimes their friends from other classes. Children told investigators that the teacher would lock the door, which teachers often do to avoid interruptions.
Children allegedly were blindfolded and given a spoon filled with a milky-white substance or cookie smeared with it. Berndt took photos of the kids as they chuckled, sometimes giving them a copy to take home, underscoring the supposedly innocent nature of the game and their reward for participating.
In one photo, a child giggles as a 3-inch-long cockroach crawls on his face. In other photos, children laugh with clear tape over their mouths.
Lopez said that when he questioned his son, the boy knew about the game and said it occurred during class, but he did not participate. Kids mentioned it among themselves, but didn’t see it as suspicious, he said.
Experts said that the fact that children didn’t tell anyone is not unusual. Guessing games are played throughout childhood and blindfolds are donned at pinata parties and other games. If parents heard about the game or saw the photos, they likely dismissed it as a teacher simply amusing the children, especially since the kids weren’t bothered by it and it was not overtly sexual.
Pedophiles commonly use such games to determine which kids will trust them the most and who they can act out further with.
“They’re really, really good at this and children don’t report it,” said Mitch Eisen, director of forensic psychology at California State University, Los Angeles. “Children may feel privileged or special to be involved in the games.”
The fact that kids seemed be enjoying themselves also initially threw investigators, who were alerted to the photos by a drugstore film processor. Los Angeles sheriff’s detective Sgt. Dan Scott recalled that the photos clearly depicted inappropriate behavior for a teacher, but no crime. Investigators pressed on.
“We felt something was wrong here,” he said.
Parents, meanwhile, want some kind of assurance that these things won’t happen again _ they want classroom cameras and open doors. And Suarez said she has reinforced advice to her daughter about what is proper and improper behavior by adults.
“I told her don’t take anything from anyone,” she said. “Not even a teacher.”
Associated Press staff writers Greg Risling and Raquel Maria Dillon contributed to this report.
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