The Los Angeles Unified School District launched an internal investigation to determine how a teacher accused of bizarre acts of lewd conduct against the students in his classroom escaped suspicion for so long.
The investigation comes as detectives said Wednesday that several new potential victims have come forward and parents at Miramonte Elementary School demanded to know why the alleged crimes went undetected for five years.
"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?" L.A. Unified Supt. John Deasy said in an interview Wednesday. "I'm definitely trying to understand how someone could not have known."
Deasy and other school officials said they have no records of anyone complaining about former teacher Mark Berndt, 61, who is accused of gagging students with tape, blindfolding them and spoon-feeding his semen to them as part of a "tasting game."
But one woman who identified herself as a former student came forward Wednesday to say that school staff had looked into a complaint made against Berndt in the 1990-91 school year.
In an interview, Marlene Trujillo said she was a fourth-grader in his class at the time, and that she wasn't sure what to make of her teacher's odd behavior.
She said Berndt often moved his hands under his desk, near his lap, at the front of the classroom. She and other students had seen a jar of Vaseline in one of his desk compartments.
Trujillo, a 30-year-old paralegal, said she was called before a school counselor with two other girls after one of them complained about Mr. Berndt's alleged behavior.
"I didn't say much during the meeting," Trujillo said. Finally, the counselor "just told us it's not very good to make stories up. She said it was our imagination. It was never talked about again."
Trujillo said she felt relieved. "I was glad that I didn't get in trouble, that they didn't tell my mom I was part of making up stories."
Berndt had always been kind to her, buying her Hostess pastries, and sending her tapes of the Beach Boys and Christmas cards for several years after she left his class, she said. Despite behavior that she now considers inappropriate, she remembered Berndt as a good teacher who made lessons about the Dewey decimal system, the weather and evolution interesting.
One of her classmates at the time, Nadine Martinez Rodriguez, said she also noticed Berndt's behavior behind his desk.
Martinez, now 30 and a doctoral student at UC Santa Barbara, said she told her mother about it at the time but that her mother didn't take it seriously enough to report to school officials.
When told of the allegations by a reporter Wednesday, Deasy said he would immediately report them to sheriff's investigators.
Berndt was charged with 23 counts of committing lewd acts on children. He has not entered a plea. He is in jail on $23-million bail. His public defender has declined to comment.
He allegedly took hundreds of photos of the children, many with a milky substance around their mouths, authorities said. The charges date to 2005, prosecutors said.
Police became aware of the case in late 2010 after Berndt allegedly took photos to be developed at a CVS pharmacy in the South Bay. The photo technician saw the disturbing images and called police.
Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department detectives showed school officials the photos in January 2011, and the district immediately suspended Berndt and later fired him.
It took a year before charges were filed.
During this period, the Sheriff's Department had Berndt under surveillance, law enforcement sources said.
Last January, they found a white substance on a spoon in his classroom. By July, tests had revealed the substance was semen. Detectives followed Berndt to get a sample of his DNA for comparison. Deputies saw Berndt spit on the sidewalk one day and used that saliva to match the semen to him, said the sources, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the case was ongoing.
Sheriff's officials said it also took months to identify the children in the photos.
"It was horrendously difficult to identify these kids. These events occurred over a space of time and some of their facial features were obstructed by blindfolds and other items," said Sheriff's Chief of Detectives William McSweeney.
Simply placing a notice at school was not an option because it was crucial to get untainted recollections from the child witnesses.
"You must not have any victim cross-contaminate another statement by talk among their families," added Sgt. Dan Scott, who worked on the case.
Detectives said such investigation use techniques developed in the aftermath of the infamous McMartin case, in which children accused operators of a South Bay preschool of outrageous acts of abuse. The charges made national headlines, but over time many came to believe the children were not telling the truth. A jury in 1990 acquitted the defendants.
Scott said the detectives took great pains to avoid having rumors about the case spread around campus before they could interview the students.
They began with a few preliminary interviews with students in January 2011, chatting generally about the classroom and trying to learn how it worked. "What is a day like in the classroom?" was one question they asked, Scott said.
Then, they started focusing on students who detectives believed were potential victims or knew potential victims.
"You start with narrowest ring those in his class, then third-graders and other years," Scott said.
Finally, detectives began interviewing some students in private, eliciting accounts used in the case against Berndt.
Berndt's career straddles portions of five decades — a period during which the handling of molestation allegations has evolved substantially.
In 1990, L.A. Unified agreed to the largest settlement in its history to end a case in which more than dozen girls were molested by former 68th Street Elementary teacher Terry E. Bartholome. He had been transferred rather than fully investigated when allegations against him first arose.
Even after that, the rules of the system focused heavily on the rights of employees as opposed to those of students and individual cases became mired in middle-management process. One of those case occurred on the Miramonte campus: Ricardo Guevara, a teacher's aide, was convicted in 2005 of lewd acts with a child, but only after two earlier reports, including one at another site, were discounted.
On Wednesday, some parents at Miramonte Elementary School remained angry and frustrated. At a meeting, several parents demanded more information about what the school knew and questioned how no one could have known about what allegedly occurred in his classroom.
"It's just getting everybody more upset," said Guille Catanon, whose 8-year-old daughter attends Miramonte. "Parents want to know who the kids are. It's scary because he's been here for such a long time."
Los Angeles Times staff writers Paloma Esquivel and Robert Faturechi contributed to this report.