LA teacher's arrest brings questions and fury

CHRISTINE ARMARIO AP Education Writer Published:

A Los Angeles teacher is accused of taping his young students' mouths shut, blindfolding them and placing a giant cockroach on their faces. All of this, authorities say, in what should have been the safety of their classroom.

In the days since Mark Berndt's arrest, one of the first questions parents and educators across the country were asking was how it could have gone unnoticed for so long in a school where there are hundreds of children and teachers milling about.

What actions the Los Angeles Unified School District and leaders at Miramonte Elementary School took is still uncertain, but school safety experts say it's doubtful someone didn't suspect something along the way.

Far too often, there is a culture of "deny, deflect, downplay and defend," said Ken Trump, president of National School Safety and Security Services, who has worked in and with schools for over 25 years.

"When I hear these cases that have been going on for years and years and years, I find it very hard to believe somewhere along the line someone didn't suspect something," Trump said.

"Even if it was the teacher across the hallway, or the buzz in the cafeteria, or a parent who did come forward," he said.

Berndt came to authorities' attention at least as far back as 1994, when a 10-year-old girl claimed he reached toward her genitals during class. Sheriff's deputies sent the case to prosecutors, who declined to pursue charges.

Berndt, 61, continued teaching at the school for almost another decade before being fired. He taught 30 years at the school, which is predominantly Hispanic and where 95 percent of students qualify for free or reduced price lunch.

He was arrested Monday on felony charges of committing lewd acts on 23 boys and girls, ages 6 to 10, between 2005 and 2010. Berndt remains jailed on $23 million and could face multiple life sentences.

The fallout from the arrest continued Friday, as a second teacher who was pulled from a classroom at Miramonte was arrested. Authorities, however, did not release any information on the case.

Some parents have pulled their children from classes as they try to get answers from school officials about why Berndt was able to continue teaching and whether there were any signs that could have tipped administrators off.

One of the first safety measures most districts take is a background check, but in Berndt's case, he had no criminal record. And that's not unusual with many of the people in positions of power at schools who are later accused of misconduct, Trump said.

Young children, like the elementary students Berndt taught, are often intimidated about coming forward to report a teacher, so parents need to instill a strong understanding of what behavior is inappropriate and what to do when misconduct takes place, said Ron Stephens, executive director of the national School Safety Center. They also need to ask their children questions, like whether they have any concerns, and have a visible presence at the school.

"Go visit the classroom," Stephens said. "Find out what the climate is like."

Training for teachers on child abuse reporting and sexual harassment prevention varies by state. In California, training on when and how to report a suspected incident of abuse takes place every year, in addition to a separate training program on sexual harassment held every two years.

MaryJo McGrath, a California attorney and expert on sexual harassment law, said the training has historically not been strong on what teachers should be looking for in colleagues' behavior and what to do if they suspect one of them is jeopardizing the safety of children.

"Nor do they address the difficulty of what it is to 'tell on your colleague,'" McGrath said.

Two women have told the Los Angeles Times they made complaints about Berndt's behavior in 1990 and that no action was taken.

Marlene Trujillo, now 30, said she and two other fourth-grade students told a counselor Berndt often moved his hands under his desk, near his lap, at the front of the classroom. They also said they had seen a jar of Vaseline in one of his desk compartments.

The counselor "told us it's not very good to make stories up. She said it was our imagination," she said. "It was never talked about again."

Dan Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, said counselors and other school employees need to have their eyes and ears open and not be quick to dismiss any complaint.

"Oh, this kid is always complaining," a counselor might think, Domenech said. "Well, maybe, but maybe this time it is a valid complaint."

Overall, the single most effective strategy to preventing a crime is the physical presence of a responsible adult, Stephens said. Principals and other administrators need to make random stops to check in on teachers and students.

But what about all the hours of the school day when another adult isn't around? How can parents be assured their children are safe?

Many schools have doors with windows, but even that has its security drawbacks, Stephens said. He recalled a shooting in Red Lake, Minn., in which a 16-year-old shot and killed seven people at a high school. The shooter was able to enter a locked classroom by shooting through the glass window.

"It's a matter of finding that appropriate balance," Stephens said.

Another measure starting to become more common is installing cameras in the classroom.

Schools are using them to monitor the safety of students and teachers, but also for professional development. More districts are recording teachers so that they can later go back and identify what learning strategies were most effective and how to best communicate new material to students.

While it is possible the abuse happened even as administrators did their best to prevent it, most experts say, that is unlikely.

"I don't see how it could have escaped their attention," Domenech said. "The only thing I can imagine is they just didn't have the evidence."