Breaking a Sacred Trust: When a Teacher is a Child Molester

Back when the Penn State scandal hit I wrote about how we should all probably assume that someone we know is a child molester. Sexual abuse of kids has become an epidemic in this country--and, as I wrote in November, it's not being done by a weirdo lurking under a viaduct.

Yesterday the news broke that 61-year-old Mark Berndt, a 30-year veteran teacher at Miramonte Elementary--which, although located in an unincorporated area of LA County is still part of the Los Angeles Unified School District--has been charged with 23 counts of lewd acts against a child.

The details are horrifying and graphic: Berndt allegedly blindfolded the kids and had them play a tasting game where they had to eat his semen--the kids didn't know what it was--off of a spoon. The kids then had to tell him if it was salty or sweet.

It makes me feel ill to even type that. 

Berndt was only busted because he photographed the kids and took the film to be developed. Thank God he didn't have a digital camera--or didn't use it in this particular instance--because otherwise, this horror might never have been exposed.

My first concern is for the children. It's incredibly sad that apparently not one child came forward to say what was happening to him or her. But it is not surprising. We have not empowered and educated children in this country, especially not low income children like the ones at Miramonte, about what they should do when they're in a situation where someone in a position of authority asks them to do something uncomfortable or keep a secret. They don't know how to deal with the predators that are out there.

We really need a mandatory national program in every school that teaches every child how to stay safe and what to do if an adult or other child behaves in an inappropriate manner. I really hope those kids at Miramonte are going to be provided with high quality counselors to help them deal with this. Of course, even with a national program, when you're teacher is the perpetrator...sigh.

Every day I send my two sons to school in LAUSD and when I drop them off, I'm trusting that the school and their teachers will keep them safe, protect them--will act in my stead. Berndt, who was much beloved in the community, broke a sacred trust by doing what he did and I'm sure every Los Angeles parent is asking themselves, what if my child's teacher is a molester, too?  

The truth is, they could be. Just as it could be your father, husband, uncle, neighbor, or cousin. One obviously sick person who happens to be a teacher does not mean that ALL teachers are this way. Just as some shady people on Wall Street wrecked this country's economy, that doesn't mean that every single person working on Goldman Sachs is the scum of the earth.

I would hope that folks would have sense enough to recognize that there is no teacher out there cheering for this guy. Teachers want to draw and quarter Berndt, just like everyone else. I especially feel for all the male teachers out there who are now going to be regarded with even more suspicion because of this creep. Male teachers already face enough stereotyping as potential child molesters--no real man would want to be a teacher--and all that crap. It's sexist--and it ignores the fact that women can be pedophiles, too.

As for the reports of whether he can still draw his pension because he resigned instead of being fired by the district, I have no idea if that's true. In general a teacher who resigns or is fired should be able to collect a pension for the years of hard work and low pay she's already served as a public servant. Unfortunately, just as Miranda Rights have to be read to even the worst murderer--that pension may also be available to extreme cases like Berndt. Unhappy silver lining: If Berndt is convicted, he won't be doing any shopping with that pension money, period.  

Right now the biggest priority has to be ensuring those kids are OK, not turning a tragedy into a political weapon against teachers. LAUSD has to do everything possible to ensure this can't happen again to school children in this city. Perhaps this district will decide to become national leaders in educating children about predators.  But, sadly, even the most vigilant efforts might not help. With child molesters, where there's a will there's a way.


1969 said…
That is horrific. I have no words.
Liz Dwyer said…
Isn't it? It's despicable. I keep thinking about those poor children.
nick said…
As you say, Liz, the sad and shocking thing is that not a single child had the good sense or confidence to expose this guy and tell everyone what he was up to. As you also say, there should be an immediate programme to make it clear to every schoolkid that this sort of behaviour is 100% wrong, they should report it immediately, and if they do they will get total sympathy and understanding (and protection) from their school, their other teachers and their parents.
BlackLiterature said…
I didn't know the details. Unbelievable. I seriously worry about how to protect my children. I can't believe none of the children told their parents.
Anonymous said…
As a former student at Hamilton High who had the teacher under investigation in L.A., thank you. Regardless of his great teaching skills, just because someone is great in one area does not mean they could be horrible in another. I have felt ill ever since hearing the news. Although there are fewer confirmed facts in this situation, I am willing to believe the worst, because so often victims have to deal with the pain of others not believing them.
Liz Dwyer said…
The story is just getting more horrible. A second teacher has since been removed from his classroom and accused of fondling two girls and now the district is removing 100% of the staff and having them go through interviews or screenings--lawsuits, hysteria...and in the meantime, I'm wondering, whose to say this isn't happening at another school--public or private, or in student's homes? That's why kids need education about what to do in situations with molesters.

I worry about that too. It's now come out that back in like 1994 some kids made accusations, but the sheriff's dept investigated and did not file charges.

My heart goes out to you and all the other former students. It has to be really hard picturing that someone who you trusted did this. :(
dinagideon said…
One of my very good friends from high school ended up teaching in the same school district as me. I was super thrilled for the kids he was going to teach...such a great guy with a HUGE heart.

Yeah, you know where this is going, right?

He is now serving a prison sentence for THIRTY years for all the crimes he did against little girls aged 5-12. I won't go into details but the judge basically said this was one of the sickest, saddest cases he had ever seen. Ugh.

I have a three year old daughter. All these years I have been concerned that if anything were to happen to her, it would be from a stranger, and in reality, the possibility existed in a good friend. Makes me ill just thinking about what could have been.

Hold your kids tight. And yeah, the predator can be anywhere...home, school, shops.

Great post. Thanks for putting this out there.

And thanks for reminding folks that a predator will be a predator regardless of where they are employed. And with regards to teachers, even the ones you think are the "best" could be the worst of the worst.

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