On Monday, January 30, 2012 California third-grade teacher Mark Berndt was arrested on 23 counts of lewd acts performed on boys and girls aged 6 to 10 years old occurring between 2008 and 2010. According to MSNBC, the 61-year-old teacher stands accused of blindfolding students, putting tape on their mouths and taking photos of them with live cockroaches or a spoon full of semen at Miramonte Elementary School in south Los Angeles. Upon a police search of Berndt’s home, 390 photos were discovered and 10 more child victims still need to be identified.
Berndt was fired in January 2011, a year prior to his arrest, after a CVS photo technician brought sickening photographs taken by Berndt to the Redondo Beach police department. The school’s parents, however, were never informed as to why Berndt was suddenly fired. It was not until Berndt’s January 30, 2012 arrest that the parents finally learned of Berndt’s shocking and disgusting actions. According to the Huffington Post, on Wednesday, February 1, parents, outraged at being kept in the dark for 13 months, met with administrators, police officials and Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent, John Deasy. Deasy defended the actions of not informing the parents, claiming the authorities needed time to build their case. In those lost 13 months, students did not receive counseling nor were they tested for sexually transmitted diseases, which authorities are now recommending.
Deasy told MSNBC that Mark Berndt’s 30-year school record was clean. “Not so much as a single complaint.” At the Miramonte Elementary School parent forum, Deasy asked, “How do I make sense out of the fact that this took place over a number of years ago and no one seemed to know about that?”
Ah, but they did.
During the 1990-91 school year, Marlene Trujillo, then a student of Berndt’s, was interviewed by a school counselor after Berndt was accused of masturbating behind his desk. The LA Times reported Trujillo as saying the school counselor told her, “…it’s not very good to make stories up. She said it was our imagination. It was never talked about again.”
According to the LA Times, in 1994 a 10 year old student reported Berndt tried touching her genitals while she was taking a test in his class. Although school officials notified the sheriff’s department, no charges were filed against Berndt due to insufficient evidence.
In both of these cases, the allegations were never documented in Berndt’s permanent employment record as the claims were found to be without merit. Los Angeles District laws on reporting potential abuse safeguard the employee against false accusations; therefore, any unfounded accusations are permanently expunged from all files. During Berndt’s 30 year tenure, how many other students came forward with claims of abuse and were turned away, leaving Berndt’s record impeccable?
While the topic of child sexual abuse has certainly gained attention in the past months and more cases are being reported, it is still a taboo subject and most cases are not reported. The Pepperdine Law Review cites the failure to report incidents of child sexual abuse to authorities is due to incapacity, fear and embarrassment. Add adults not taking accusations by children seriously, and the epidemic of child sexual abuse continues.
At Prevent Child Abuse-New Jersey, we believe the best weapon against child sexual abuse and all child abuse is education. Our high quality training and workshops educate parents, teachers, students, school administrators, clergy and other members of the community whereby providing the necessary tools needed to spot the warning signs of abuse. Through education, we can remove the veil of shame associated with child sexual abuse to encourage children to speak up and adults to believe them. With the proper tools and knowledge, 18 years ago Mark Berndt would have been removed from the classroom, saving scores of children pain and suffering.
Daniel Ochoa, whose 9-year-old daughter was Berndt’s student last year, was quoted in L.A. Now as saying, “As parents, we should have been more involved. As a father, I feel terrible because it’s too late to do anything now.” It is not too late! With the proper education, we can stop child sexual abuse and prevent it from ever happening.
Find out what you can do to prevent child sexual abuse by contacting us at 1-800-CHILDREN, or visit us online at www.preventchildabusenj.org.