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Past claims raise further questions about teacher

5:08 AM, Feb 3, 2012   |    comments
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LOS ANGELES -- A 10-year-old girl claimed her elementary school teacher tried to fondle her - 18 years ago.

The allegation is gaining new attention with the arrest of teacher Mark Berndt, who's accused of photographing children for sexual thrills.

Prosecutors declined to file to charges against Berndt in the 1993 report, saying they didn't have enough evidence. Now Berndt is charged with committing lewd acts on 23 children, ages 6 to 10, between 2005 and 2010.

He remains jailed on $23 million bail and could face life in prison if convicted.

The details of the 1993 case and other claims by two former students about strange behavior by Berndt surfaced just three days after his arrest.

The allegations also raised further questions about why he wasn't disciplined by school officials, who have been lambasted by some parents for waiting a year to reveal Berndt was suspected of taking bondage-style photographs of children in his class.

Only parents of children identified as victims were told by authorities about the most recent investigation.

School officials and investigators said proper procedures were followed to investigate and build a case against the teacher.

The incident involving the 10-year-old girl occurred in September 1993 but wasn't reported by her mother to officials at Miramonte Elementary School until the following January, after her daughter had seen an "Oprah" show about inappropriate touching, Los Angeles County sheriff's Sgt. Dan Scott said Thursday.

The girl claimed Berndt reached toward her genitals during class and she pushed his hand away, Scott said.

School officials notified the sheriff's department, which submitted evidence to prosecutors. They opted not to file a charge of committing a lewd act on a minor under the age of 14. Berndt was never arrested.

"Based on what I read, it was a thorough and complete investigation," said Scott, who noted the investigator who handled the case has retired.

Sandi Gibbons, a district attorney spokeswoman, said in a statement the case was rejected because there was insufficient evidence to prove a crime had occurred. The statement did not elaborate.

Berndt denied the allegation at the time.

Earlier, two women who said they were former students of Berndt told the Los Angeles Times that complaints were made about his odd behavior as far back as 1990.

Los Angeles Unified School District Supt. John Deasy told the newspaper he was struggling to determine how the alleged behavior went undetected for so long.

"How do I make sense out of the fact that this took place over a number of years and no one seemed to know about that?" Deasy said. "I'm definitely trying to understand how someone could not have known."

Using a cheap camera, Berndt is suspected of snapping nearly 400 photographs of Miramonte students, some with a giant Madagascar cockroach from a classroom terrarium on their faces. Others were blindfolded or had clear tape over their mouths, and some were given sperm-laced cookies to eat as treats in the photo sessions that were treated like games, Scott said.

Some of Berndt's students defended him, saying he was a kind and generous teacher. Angelica Zuniga, a 16-year-old high school junior, was in third grade in 2003 when she had Berndt as a teacher. She said he never asked her or others to do anything strange or to play any inappropriate games.

"They're calling him 'monster.' He's just not that kind of person," Angelica said. "He was one of the most amazing teachers out there. He's dedicated his life to us, and I want to stick up for him."

The latest investigation of Berndt began in the fall of 2010 when a film processor became suspicious about the photographs and turned them over to Redondo Beach police, who on Dec. 2, 2010, handed them over to the sheriff's department, Scott said.

Berndt, who taught at Miramonte for more than 30 years ago, was removed from classwork in January 2011 and fired within the month.

By GREG RISLING, Associated Press
Associated Press writers Robert Jablon and Raquel Maria Dillon contributed to this report.

The Associated Press

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