Protest against fired Miramonte teachers Mark Berndt and Martin Springer

A poster of fired teachers Mark Berndt and Martin Springer, right, greeted students as they arrived at Miramonte Elementary in February 2012. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times / February 9, 2012)

The 2012 child abuse scandal at Miramonte Elementary became the biggest and costliest in the history of the Los Angeles Unified School District.

Police said third-grade teacher Mark Berndt conducted lewd classroom games with dozens of students. The district replaced all 85 Miramonte teachers for months to assure parents that their children were safe. So far, L.A. Unified has paid $30 million in civil settlements.

Obscured in the flood of publicity, however, has been the case of another third-grade teacher at Miramonte: Martin Springer, who came to the attention of investigators as they questioned students.

Springer's criminal trial is scheduled to begin this week.

Only the outlines of the case against Springer are known, gleaned largely through a preliminary hearing and civil claims against the district filed by 13 alleged victims in the wake of his arrest.

There is one accuser in the criminal case — a girl who said Springer touched her leg on several occasions. He has pleaded not guilty to three felony counts of committing a lewd act. If convicted, he faces up to 12 years in prison.

In pre-trial legal filings, prosecutors described the contact as "minimal" and wrote that there was no evidence that Springer threatened the girl. Nonetheless, they pointed out, "some pedophiles are capable of limiting their behavior as needed" and use "the most minimal touching to achieve sexual gratification."

Prosecutor Alison Meyers declined to discuss details of the case.

The school district has fired Springer, now 51, and moved to strip him of his state teaching credential. It already has paid six children $470,000 each to settle their claims involving the teacher.

Springer's lawyer, John Tyre, said that innocent behavior had been "blown out of proportion" because of the Berndt case.

"There is nothing to indicate that there was any sexual intent," he said during the preliminary hearing, suggesting that Springer's accuser and her family may be motivated by financial gain.

He told The Times that Springer had been a teacher at the school for 26 years and had no complaints about his behavior until the frenzy over Berndt.

"It comes down to a witch hunt," he said.

Suspicious photos

The Miramonte scandal came to light after a drugstore photo technician developed a batch of 35mm film and noticed some suspicious images — children blindfolded, gagged with tape or posing with a white liquid on their mouths.

The photos belonged to Berndt, who was arrested after a yearlong investigation. Police said he fed students cookies topped with semen. In November he pleaded no contest to 23 counts of committing lewd acts and was sentenced to 25 years in prison.

After his arrest, school officials asked students to write about their feelings. That led detectives to a fifth-grade girl, who told them she and a friend had been touched by Springer in the third grade.

The friend told investigators that at the time of the alleged incidents, she had been helping Springer in his classroom during recess several days a week.

On up to a dozen occasions when she approached him with questions, the girl testified during a preliminary hearing, Springer would crouch in front of her and — for about five seconds — place his hand on the back of her leg, between her knee and the bottom of the rear pocket of her pants.

The girl's father testified during the preliminary hearing that he took her to the LAPD's 77th Street Station after one alleged incident but that detectives told him there wasn't enough evidence to take action. The girl returned to Springer's class the next day and continued to help him at recess.