“Instead of asking, did you learn something today? I asked, did someone touch you?”
– A conversation between a Miramonte student and her grandmother.
The latest incident regarding child abuse within the Los Angeles School District has occurred at Miramonte Elementary School in South Los Angeles. This school is located in the Florence area which is an old Latino community that dates back to the early 1900′s.Miramonte is an overcrowded school that has an enrollment of 1500 students who are approximately 90% Latino and the rest African-American. They are taught by a staff of over 120 teachers and everyone is packed into a year-round schedule due to a lack of space. Teacher Mark Berndt, who has taught at the school since 1979, has been charged with 23 felony counts of alleged lewd acts upon children and jailed. He is accused of blindfolding and gagging children in his class and spoon-feeding semen and semen-laced cookies to his students in a “tasting game” that was a regular part of his classroom activities. Berndt also placed cockroaches on the children’s faces during these “games” and photographed all of these sordid scenes of child bondage and other depraved acts. Hundreds of photos have been discovered by a police investigation that show Berndt and his students engaged in this sick “tasting game”. Somehow for over 30 years, no school personnel seemed to notice or report anything unusual that was occurring in Berndt’s classroom. These photos of innocent victims who were in his care would later prove to be his downfall. Complaints about Berndt masturbating while sitting behind his desk were made by students as far back as the 1990′s. These ex-students, who are now in college, were scolded at that time by a counselor who told them not to “make up” stories! Other parents who had complained to the principal were told that these incidents were probably the teacher’s use of a classroom game or else told not to make up lies. Thus, Berndt was allowed to continue working with children behind closed doors for almost twenty more years without being regularly monitored and supervised by school administrators who swept these incidents and complaints under the rug. There was never any follow-up by school officials nor any reports made to the police which is mandated by law. The only response to these complaints was a cover-up and silence as the children were left defenseless and in the clutches of this abuser. Adding to this disgusting situation is another teacher named Martin Springer who has taught at the school since 1986. He is a friend of Berndt and has also been fired and arrested for fondling female students. A third female teacher who was accused of delivering students to Berndt’s classroom was investigated, but no charges were filed. In addition, a school aide at Miramonte molested three girls in 2008 and a civil jury ordered the district to pay out $1.6 million to their families. In yet another case, a female teachers aide was finally transferred to another school after parents complained about her constantly writing intimate love letters to their young son while instructing him to keep the letters secret. Students and parents cannot be blamed as they spoke up and lodged complaints in 1990-91, 1994 and various times in 2008. Somehow, all of these criminal acts against children were covered over and these complaints by both students and parents rebuffed and even called lies by school officials. Adding to this rash of abuse, a music teacher at a high school in the area has been fired for criminal acts against a male student while another teacher at Telfair Elementary School was charged with 15 counts of sexual abuse that occurred as far back as 2010. The police and school officials never notified any of the parents at Telfair of these crimes which could have affected their children. A custodian at yet another school has also been charged with sexual abuse. The fundamental problems in all of these cases were a failure to investigate and report possible crimes against children to the authorities, not informing their parents, and negligent supervision. This was a case of incompetency and failure on their part to carry out their professional responsibilities.
This abuse was uncovered by chance and not by the efforts of school officials.
Past complaints against Berndt by students and parents were ignored and he was permitted to continue his abuse of children for two more decades. However, a fatal mistake led to his undoing. In 2010, a clerk at a CVS Pharmacy who had developed some photos noticed abnormal and disturbing images in them that showed scenes of bondage where children were gagged and blind-folded. He reported this to the police and the Sheriff’s began an investigation that year. That longinvestigation eventually led a Sheriff’s investigator to Berndt’s classroom and his trash can where a spoon containing semen was found which matched the teacher’s DNA. This police investigation began in 2010, which meant that these abusive practices continued until 2011 due to a supposed lack of evidence. Yet, parents at the school were not informed of these perverted activities that possibly affected their children and would have motivated them to be more protective of them. If this clerk at the pharmacy had not noticed the lewd photos of Berndt’s victims and had not reported them to police authorities, then it would be still be business as usual at Miramonte for these two accused child abusers who would have continued harming children’s lives for years to come. Thus, it was the alert pharmacy clerk and the slow-paced investigation by the Sheriff’s Department that finally removed these predators from Miramonte. The primary responsibility of school administrators consists of safeguarding the safety of the children in their care by observing and maintaining oversight over the school’s teachers as well as any other employees. Instead, they looked the other way at Miramonte and apparently no one else at the school saw nor heard any evil. So much for the protectors of the children’s well-being as their primary concern degenerated into keeping a quiet lid on this sordid and abusive situation in order to protect their adult interests and careers.
A widespread anger and disgust has been expressed by the local community.
The reaction of the parents whose students attend Miramonte and from residents within the surrounding community has been one of anger, shock and disgust. Protests have been held in front of the school by outraged parents who have demanded to know how administrators and others could not have known what was being done to their children for over twentyyears. Many parents have called this prolonged abuse a cover-up by district and school officials. Shocked parents also demanded to know why there had been no close oversight or observation of these teachers accused of criminal misconduct during the past twenty years and how they were presumably evaluated as satisfactory by school administrators. The key question is how were these teachers allowed to sit behind closed doors for years while carrying on strange games and molesting their captive students without anyone on the campus noticing anything wrong or alerting the police authorities when complaints were lodged against them. None of these past complaints against Berndt were ever written up and placed in his personnel file until he was finally fired in 2011. The LAUSD Superintendent John Deasy in a drastic action has removed the entire staff of 120 teachers plus administrators, custodians and other campus employees from Miramonte, and closed the school down for two days to ensure the safety of the school’s children. A newly organized staff of teachers and support employees has been assembled to replace those who have been removed. In fairness, the majority of the teachers who have taught diligently at Miramonte for years are not guilty of any wrong-doing, but an investigation needs to take place in order to clear those who are innocent. Many parents at Miramonte are also angry about having all of their children’s instructors being removed and the school’s educational program disrupted. However, the principal concern at this moment is the protection of the children and eventually regaining the trust of the parents, and this can only be achieved by a thorough housecleaning of the staff which will ensure that there are no other predators left who may harm more children. Board member Steve Zimmer correctly stated, “The beginning, middle and end of the discussion is about the safety of the children at the school. I don’t want the superintendent to pause for even a nanosecond in his efforts to secure and stabilize that campus.” At times, drastic situations call for drastic action, and in this case, this is one of them that was caused by years of drastic negligence.
The damage inflicted upon the children and community is immeasurable.
It is unknown how many children during the last twenty years were exposed to these lewd acts of bondage and experienced this perversionand abuse by these predators. Tracking down these victims will be an enormous task and assessing the psychological damage they experienced can never be truly measured. What is not being mentioned is the health risk these children were exposed to by being fed semen in spoons and semen-laden cookies. They could have been contaminated with AIDS, hepatitis or STDs as no one has demanded that Berndt or his past students be tested for these diseases. If he did transmit any disease to certain children, the trauma and health effects add to the damage already inflicted upon these innocent victims. Another form of damage that has been inflicted upon the parents and children of this community is the trust factor. Families entrusted their children to the school’s educators who were supposed to be their guardians and instead certain teachers and administrators violated that trust and endangered the physical and mental well-being of these children for over 20 years. Faith in the L.A. Sheriff’s department has also been shaken as previous complaints by parents to them years ago were rebuffed with instructions to go and talk to the school principal! The first batch of lewd photos from a CVS Pharmacy and samples of Berndt’s semen were first discovered by the Sheriffs in early 2011, yet it took almost a year to have a DNA test completed that could be used as evidence against Berndt. When he was finally fired in 2011, Berndt received legal assistance and appealed his dismissal and was paid $40,000. in back pay by the school district to drop his legal challenge as the necessary evidence had been withheld by the Sheriff’s Department. Besides the money he received, Berndt had his retirement and health benefits reinstated and paid for! The other accused abuser from Miramonte will also keep his pension and benefits. Worse yet, parents during this period of time were not informed about Berndt and the occurrence of these lewd acts against their children as they were kept in the dark while a Sheriff’s investigation slowly dragged on. Financially, this horror story and negligence will cost the cash-strapped school district millions of dollars in lawsuits. In addition, they will have to pay for a new staff of administrators, teachers and other support employees at Miramonte and for the old staff who were transferred to a nearby high school that is still under construction and has no students. Lastly, the educational well-being of the children at Miramonte which is already below average, is being further damaged by the disruption and turmoil caused by the mass transfer of all of their teachers. Their place has been taken by a new staff of previously laid-off teachers who have been cleared to teach, but who are not acquainted with the student’s individual needs nor their present level of academic progress.
The roots of this tragic and destructive situation run deep.
Analyzing and attempting to pinpoint the cause of these tragic events that occurred at Miramonte and how they have affected the psychological and physical well-being of the children and their families is a complex process. However, this is an urgent andnecessary task in order to prevent future students from experiencing this type of trauma and abuse. The first factor that contributed to this problem was that the huge staff of over 120 teachers and other assorted employees was too large. This made the administrative task of systematically and qualitatively supervising and detecting any problems much more difficult and thus left the door open to negligence and abuse. This school should have been divided into smaller schools where administrators and teachers could be observed on a regular basis and periodically evaluated in an effective manner. This system of supervision and oversight was obviously lacking at Miramonte. Also, the district historically has not had a comprehensive and objective evaluation procedure for both administrators and teachers. The problem with the presently-used Stull evaluation procedure is that just about every teacher with a pulse receives a mark of “satisfactory” every couple of years as this method is not only superficial, but laughable. The development of a new evaluation process has been festering in the muck of negotiations between the teacher’s union and the school board for over a year now. A new evaluation process that combines more periodic classroom observations, monitoring and rigorous assessments, could have alerted school officials and detected these alleged molesters at Miramonte before they could have harmed any children. Contributing to this scandal was the continued refusal by school administrators and counselors at Miramonte to listen to the pleas of students and parents. Instead, these victims and their families were constantly told to stop making up stories and to “quit lying”. Some parents in a 2008 complaint showed the principal photos taken by Berndt of their daughter holding a cookie with a shiny liquid substance on it that was used in the “tasting games”. The principal ignored their concerns and said that the photos were probably part of a “class project”! The daughter was then transferred to another teacher who was then accused of touching her inappropriately which led to another futile complaint by the same flustered parents. The law states that all complaints of alleged child abuse made to school employees are be reported to police authorities and it is a violation of the law to not comply with this. Ignoring these complaints also included the Sheriff’s Department and other school employees. Somehow, poor and minority students were just not a priority. Thus, this was not simply a case of being asleep at the wheel at Montevista, but rather the upholding of the administrative tradition of “keeping the lid on school problems” so that they do not reflect badly on administrative careers. This unwritten rule led to a culture of silence at the school as employees did not notice or report anything wrong or strange during all of these years. What is not being discussed is how these school officials who sneered at the complaints of children and parents and rejected their pleas will be held accountable as they violated their legal duty to report any complaints of child abuse to police authorities. Therefore, they should be charged and punished for breaking the law and allowing this abuse to continue, in addition to now making the taxpayers financially liable.
Who is there to defend the interests of the children and parents?
This tragic situation at Miramonte and the harm inflicted upon many of its students was caused by an organizational and moral breakdown. From the school board member who is in charge of the school, and down the line to Miramonte’s administrators, certaincounselors and teachers, there was a collective failure to defend the interests of the children in their care. These supposed “guardians” of the students descended into an unprofessional culture of silence in regard to the care of these poor minority kids and abandoned their responsibilities by not wanting to know about or be held accountable for any harm being inflicted upon the children. The parents and students complained to the school system in an honest manner and the representatives of the bureaucratic system ignored, rejected and insulted them by accusing them of lying. In addition, there was a moral breakdown as it is hard to believe that for over twenty years, no one noticed or reported anything wrong at the school regarding the behavior of these predators. All of the school personnel that was involved had a moral duty to be the guardians of these innocent children and defend their interests by exposing and reporting any semblance of harm being inflicted upon them. There is a moral issue of right and wrong that is at the core of this tragic crime against children. Simply minding one’s own business by ignoring any type of bizarre behavior at the school or behind closed doors that affects kids and not wishing to rock the boat, is both criminal and a sign of moral cowardice. In Germany during World War Two, the majority of Germans kept quiet and did not speak up and unbelievably stated that they did not notice anything wrong nor strange occurring at the nearby prison camps. The same principle applies in the Miramonte situation except on a much smaller scale, as people who refused to take a stand and speak up expressed a moral bankruptcy and selfish lack of principles. The majority of these problems and harm to students at Miramonte and the other schools could have been prevented with proper administrative supervision, by fellow employees speaking up, and with a better method of communication with the parents. The parents and families in this Florence community and in other communities need to organize themselves in order to closely observe and monitor their children and their local school staffs. Such vigilance and oversight is a right that urgently needs to be asserted in order to prevent any future problems and defend the educational interests of their children and families. Administrators and teachers each have their organizations to defend their adult interests. The administrator’s union has been largely quiet in its response to this scandal while the teacher’s union has called the attempt to protect the children at Miramonte “a stunt”. Meanwhile, the children and parents in this poor Latino and African-American community are left defenseless and without a voice to defend their well-being. These parents and other community residents must become the first line of defense for their children as the district and some of its employees who were responsible for the students at their schools have failed miserably at this fundamental task of safeguarding them. Hopefully, this rash of sick crimes against children will give impetus to much needed reform efforts that are drastically needed.