Until the photos surfaced, it didn’t appear that anything was seriously amiss at Miramonte Elementary School.
The school was on the upswing. Test scores were rising. The campus south of downtown Los Angeles was bright with new paint, murals and $6 million in other improvements. A new principal brought in parent education workshops, student leadership programs and other activities. Even the neighborhood, notorious for gang violence and drugs, had calmed down.
Then came the bombshell: photos showing Miramonte schoolchildren blindfolded and gagged, pictured with spoons containing a milky substance that authorities allege was the semen of Mark Berndt, 61, a third-grade teacher who has been charged with 23 counts of lewd conduct with children. Another teacher, Martin Springer, was arrested on suspicion of three counts of lewd conduct.
The school’s gains now seem endangered by the turmoil, and families, staff and neighbors are wrestling with the haunting question of how this could have happened.
Perhaps there wouldn’t be signs at any school. A suspect intent on using children in these ways might be able to slide by largely unnoticed, experts say.
But Miramonte faces particularly challenging conditions. It is the second-largest elementary school in California and one of the last remaining on a year-round calendar, with teachers and nearly 1,500 students on different schedules.
Families in the area rank among the poorest in L.A County. Two-thirds of adults have no high school diploma and about a third are single parents, twice the rate in the county overall. Nearly half the residents are immigrants, most from Latin American countries, and half the students are English learners.
“Parents who are unfamiliar with the system or uncomfortable because they don’t speak the language … or work two or three jobs may not be as attentive to their children’s education,” said Yolie Flores, a Los Angeles school board member at the time the photos surfaced last year; she voted then to fire Berndt.
California Federation of Teachers president Joshua Pechthalt said vigilance can be harder in large schools like Miramonte. “When you create schools that are so large, students can get lost academically and emotionally, and teachers can get lost,” he said.
Parents, current and former students, residents and others say there are no easy answers.
Dora Gonzalez, for instance, is a Honduran immigrant whose fifth-grade daughter Nancy attends Miramonte.
She is an involved parent who studies English daily, is working toward her high school diploma, participates in most family education workshops and is quick to meet with teachers over academic problems. She quizzed her daughter regularly when she had a male teacher to make sure he made no inappropriate advances.
Yolanda Rivera, another immigrant mother, warned her two children when they enrolled in Miramonte to tell her if any teacher touched them with more than a pat on their back, a hug or kiss on the cheek.
The mothers never saw or heard anything that raised their suspicions. “There were no signs that anything was wrong at the school,” Gonzalez said.
As far as anyone knows at this point, one parent showed a former principal a photo of his child eating a cookie, and two girls told a counselor that Berndt often moved his hands under his desk near his lap.
School officials did not find the complaints serious enough to report to law enforcement. Another girl reported that Berndt fondled her in 1993, but prosecutors dropped the case for insufficient evidence.
Berndt was a popular teacher, students said. Often clad in casual Hawaiian shirts and shorts, he was known to give out Popsicles and lollipops every week. He played dodge ball and kickball with the kids. He was light on homework and took the students on field trips, joked around and gave children special nicknames: “Crystal pistol” for Crystal Ramirez, 21, a former Berndt student, for example.
“Everyone wanted him for their teacher because he was cool and fun,” said Aileen Godinez, a seventh-grader and former Miramonte student.
Many children loved Berndt’s collection of insects — roaches, butterflies, ladybugs, dragonflies kept in containers on a classroom table. Ramirez recalled that Berndt’s favorite subject was science, especially bugs. He read them books about insects and let the students play with them.
She said she never heard of, or participated in, any “tasting games,” the name Berndt is said to have used in his alleged scheme to feed his semen to students in spoons. Some parents also suspect he smeared his semen on cookies he gave to the children.
Ramirez said she found a few unusual things about Berndt: the way he smeared Vaseline on his lips, his habit of putting his hand inside the waistband of his pants. He used to ask her to stay after school to work on reading, she said, but she never did.
Another former student, 21-year-old Dianna Amezcua, said Berndt would sit on the steps near the playground with his legs wide open, making it possible to see inside his shorts. When she would pick up her brother at Miramonte after moving on to middle school, she said, Berndt would invite her into his classroom to chat, offering ice cream or Popsicles. She accepted the treats but wouldn’t go alone.
“Looking back, it was weird,” she said. “But I was young. I wasn’t going to notice things like that.”
Lawyers for the dozens of plaintiffs now filing claims against the school district for alleged abuse say that the children largely didn’t see anything wrong with the games played in Berndt’s classroom and that they were happy to have the teacher’s attention. Berndt, who is being held in County Jail, has not commented on the case, nor has his attorney.
One school staff member also said the faculty was always busy. The employee, who asked for anonymity for fear of reprisals by the L.A. Unified School District, said many teachers were constantly pressed to keep test scores up. Teachers were cordial and interacted during breaks but were not particularly social with one another beyond that, the staff member said.
“None of us had a clue to what was going on,” the staff member said. “Each one of us goes, does their job and goes home.”
The former principal, Richard Lopez, who worked at the school from 2000 to 2009, declined an interview request because he said he was cooperating with L.A. Unified’s investigation of Berndt.
Several parents and students described Lopez as disengaged, saying they rarely saw him visit classrooms or attend assemblies. Some Spanish speakers said it was difficult to communicate with him, and parents said they do not recall regular meetings with him.
When Martin Sandoval became the principal in 2009, several Miramonte families said, he began building a more cohesive school environment. Fluent in Spanish, Sandoval reached out to parents, offering them workshops on how to help their children with reading and math.
He started a student council and school dances, mentored struggling students and promoted a guitar club started by a teacher, Jose Vergara, that drew a surprise visit to campus last spring by hip-hop artist Taboo of the Black Eyed Peas.
“He was always engaging students and got parents more involved,” Oscar Proa, a 19-year-old former Miramonte student, said of Sandoval. “My mom hardly participated in any school things before, but now she’s more active and feels more school pride.”
The school was rocked in 2010 after the suicide of a popular teacher, and some union members said Sandoval was putting more pressure on teachers to raise test scores. But things were starting to get back on track before Berndt’s arrest Jan. 30.
After L.A. Unified Supt. John Deasy decided to replace the entire Miramonte staff last week, several parents and students worried about how they would deal with the new turmoil.
Last week, many students went to Miramonte hoping to say goodbye to their teachers and give them notes of thanks.
Student Nancy Gonzalez waited for Chanelle Thomas, her fifth-grade teacher who she said would stay after school to help struggling students and relentlessly hunt down their families for conferences about them.
Cristal Estrada, 14, went back to see Danilo Escalante, a teacher she said taught her not only reading and math but also about how to fight for your beliefs and work hard for success.
Esteban Rodriguez, 6, said his teacher, Petra Suvia, gave out presents of pencils and erasers, stickers and sharpeners, and he wanted her to return.
Proa frets that his sister, who tested proficient in reading and math last year for the first time, will backslide because of turmoil.
“The school had been improving so much, but now this happens and it’s all destroyed,” he said.
Times staff writers Howard Blume and Angel Jennings and data analyst Sandra Poindexter contributed to this report.