Former L.A. teacher sentenced to 25 years in child abuse case

Dana Feldman
Mark Berndt is shown in this Los Angeles Sheriff Department booking mug released to Reuters January 31, 2012. REUTERS/Los Angeles Sheriffs Department/Handout

By Dana Feldman

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - A former elementary school teacher in Los Angeles was sentenced to 25 years in prison on Friday for taking bondage-style photographs of his young students, some with semen-laced cookies held to their blindfolded faces.

Mark Berndt, 62, was sentenced in Los Angeles County Superior Court, after waiving his right to a jury trial and changing his plea to no contest on 23 counts of lewd acts upon a child.

The accusations against Berndt, a third grade teacher at Miramonte Elementary School in Los Angeles, touched off protests by infuriated parents and prompted Los Angeles County school officials to temporarily replace the entire school staff during an investigation.

Berndt, who appeared in court in handcuffs and bright orange prison garb, was "apologetic, sorry, remorseful" for his actions, said his attorney, Manny Medrano.

In some of the photos, the third-grade students had spoonfuls of semen held to their faces, while others had cockroaches crawling on them, authorities said.

Authorities said Berndt's actions spanned years at the public school, possibly as far back as the 1990s. He was charged in January 2012 after authorities were alerted to the case by a drugstore film processing technician who noticed the strange photographs of blindfolded children.

At the sentencing, parents told Judge George Lomeli their children suffered deep emotional trauma as the result of the abuse. Some spoke in Spanish through a translator, others through statements read in court.

"Mark Berndt has destroyed my child," one parent testified in a statement read by Deputy District Attorney Gloria Marin.

"She's having crying attacks, depression, eating disorders, doesn't trust anyone, doesn't want to be touched, especially near her eyes where she was blindfolded," the parent said. "She was forever scarred."

Berndt, the mother added, is a "disgusting, vile person - a monster - an animal."

Last year, the Los Angeles Unified School District agreed to a multimillion-dollar settlement with 58 current and former students at the school who had claimed damages in the case, a lawyer for the district said.

Vince William Finaldi, an attorney representing some of the children in those cases, said families had reported abuse by Berndt as far back as 1993.

(Writing by Sharon Bernstein; Editing by Barbara Goldberg, Philip Barbara and Andrew Hay)