Teacher accused of abusing pupils in game of depravity

'Bondage-type' photos found at 61-year-old's home as sickening story leaves parents stunned

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The Independent US

It was just another school day for the boys and girls of Miramonte Elementary when their teacher, Mark Berndt, announced that class was to be adjourned for what he called a special "tasting game".

For years, the veteran schoolteacher of seven- to 10-year-olds had been in the habit of asking students to put on white cloth blindfolds. He would then go on to feed them a succession of mysterious substances which they were challenged to identify.

Sometimes, the children would also be asked to wear loose-fitting gags made from cloth or tape. Usually, they seemed to enjoy this "game". In fact, photographs taken by Berndt show his pupils smiling and laughing as spoons filled with a white liquid were presented to their peers.

Yesterday, those photographs were at the centre of a grisly scandal which has outraged residents of the impoverished district of south-central Los Angeles, where Miramonte is based, and stunned parents across America.

Berndt, 61, was charged with 23 counts of lewd acts against children, after police alleged that the formerly-respected third-grade teacher had for years been in the habit of seeking sexual gratification by spoon-feeding semen to his pupils.

A search of his home turned up more than 400 photographs depicting various acts of depravity, police said. "This occurred in his regular classroom with his students," LA County Sgt Dan Scott told reporters. "It wasn't done in secrecy. The only secret was what the 'game' was really about."

Berndt, who is now in custody on $2.3m bail, is pictured smiling and laughing as he fed semen to the children on teaspoons or cookies. Some images also show him placing a three-inch Madagascar cockroach on their mouths.

The photographs were among a wider collection of DVDs and magazines depicting bondage activity, which were found at the suspect's apartment. Police said much of that pornography "mirrored the bondage-type photos of the children".

His arrest raises several pertinent questions about the shocking affair. How long had the teacher, employed at Miramonte Elementary since 1979, been carrying out his "tasting" game? And why did none of the children involved subsequently complain?

Police have no idea how many victims he may have clocked-up. Just 10 of the pupils from the 23 he is charged with abusing have so far been identified, although Berndt faces a lifetime's imprisonment if found guilty of just a fraction of the charges against him.

To many residents of the streets around Miramonte, which has a large Hispanic population, persistent problems with gang violence, and where just 50 per cent of incoming schoolchildren speak English, the case has also highlighted their district's lowly place in the pecking order.

Bernt first came to police attention in 2010, after they were called by a suspicious employee of the pharmacy where he took camera film to be developed.

Detectives immediately informed Miramonte, who suspended him from classroom duties. But neither the school nor police saw fit to inform parents of the allegations until Monday.

Detectives blame that delay on their efforts to nail down DNA evidence and prevent "cross contamination" of witnesses. But many parents of Miramonte children told reporters that they'd have been kept better in the loop if the alleged crimes had taken place in a wealthier, white neighbourhood.

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