LOS ANGELES (CBS) — Mark Berndt, a former Miramonte Elementary School teacher, pleaded not guilty Tuesday to committing lewd acts on dozens of children between 2008 and 2010.
Berndt, 61, is accused of taking photos of students while they were bound and gagged in his classroom. Some photos show cockroaches being placed on students’ faces, while others show them being spoon fed a milky-white substance that tested positive for Berndt’s DNA.
He has been charged with 23 counts of committing a lewd act on a child involving 23 children. Los Angeles County Sheriff’s officials also announced earlier this month that more potential victims have come forward.
Police say the horrifying allegations came to light after a photo processing technician saw the photos Berndt had printed in January of last year. Commercial film developers are obligated by law to report child pornography to police.
After uncovering nearly 300 photos, investigators used DNA evidence to connect Berndt to the victims. They then found spoons in the instructor’s trash — similar to the ones used in the photos — that reportedly contained Berndt’s bodily fluid.
“The day that it was brought to my attention we removed him from his assignment,” Deasy told KNX 1070.
Berndt was fired last January and, given school policy, was able to resign soon after — a move that allows long-time teachers to keep their pension.
The former teacher was arrested at his home in Torrance last month.
KNX 1070’s John Brooks reports parents like Kimberly Kirkland, who has two children that attended Miramonte and one child who is still a student, are outraged over the district’s failure to notify the community.
“I’m angry, I’m very angry, and I’m disappointed,” said Kirkland. “This is an embarrassment to the community. I feel like they should have sent some sort of newsletter out or should have placed a phone call.”
Students who were allegedly victimized by Berndt were given “psychological support” and guidance counseling over the course of the last year, Deasy said.
Deasy did confirm that there was overwhelming evidence to justify terminating the teacher.
“We fired him on the spot on the evidence of the photographs, not where it happened,” he said. “It makes no difference to me where it happened, it happened.”
Berndt is being held in solitary confinement on $23 million bail, $1 million for each count. He is expected to make another court appearance March 28 where his court appointed attorney will ask the judge to reduce Berndt’s bail.
The entire Miramonte Elementary School staff has since been reassigned as authorities continue investigating allegations again Berndt and Martin Springer, who is also accused of lewd acts against students.