LOS ANGELES — A former teacher charged with committing lewd acts against nearly two dozen children at Miramonte Elementary School in the Los Angeles area, including feeding them cookies tainted with semen, has agreed to plead no contest, sources said Thursday.
Mark Berndt has agreed to a sentence of 25 years in prison, multiple sources said.
Berndt, 62, is scheduled to enter the no-contest plea Friday in Los Angeles County Superior Court and to withdraw his not-guilty plea in connection with the more than yearlong L.A. County sheriff’s investigation into his conduct.
The deal was reached after all those involved agreed it was essential to avoid having children testify in court.
Berndt was arrested in January 2012 after a South Bay drugstore photo technician alerted authorities to images of children blindfolded, some with tape over their mouths.
Berndt, who taught at the school for three decades, was charged with 23 counts of lewd conduct involving allegations that he spoon-fed semen to blindfolded children as part of what he purportedly called a “tasting game.” He also was accused of placing cockroaches on their faces.
Attorney Manny Medrano, who represents Berndt, would not comment on the agreement. The Los Angeles County District Attorney’s office also declined to comment.
Using the more than 400 photos, authorities spent months tracking down students and conducted dozens of interviews. Ultimately, it was DNA from Berndt’s saliva and a spoon and container with semen found inside a bin in his classroom that led prosecutors to charge him.
When the L.A. Unified School District learned of the investigation, he was fired. But Berndt contested his dismissal and the district agreed to pay him $40,000 to drop his appeal.
The accusations stunned people in the unincorporated community of Florence-Firestone, one of the poorest in Los Angeles County.
Soon after Berndt’s arrest, a second Miramonte teacher, Martin Springer, also was arrested for alleged sexual misconduct involving one girl. He faces three counts of committing lewd acts; he has pleaded not guilty.
After the arrests, Superintendent John Deasy replaced the entire Miramonte staff — 85 teachers and about 25 others — for the remainder of the school year to restore confidence in the campus. All the displaced teachers and other staff were eventually exonerated and allowed to return to work.
The allegations brought a surge of legal action against L.A. Unified. The Miramonte case has led to payments of $29.54 million to settle lawsuits and claims from 63 students. The cases of 71 students and 65 parents are still being litigated.
“At this point in time, we have yet to see any plea deal or see a court sign off on any arrangement,” said Sean Rossall, a spokesman for the district. “Our focus remains on resolving the civil matters before us in a way that is respectful of the children and families involved.”
Attorneys Luis Carrillo and Brian Claypool, who represent children with claims against the district, praised the agreement and said they will continue to refuse settlement offers from the district and instead take their cases to court.
John Manly, who represents 30 alleged victims, said he was grateful to the district attorney’s office for its pursuit of Berndt. “Now that the predator has been held accountable, it is our job to go after the people who opened the predator’s cage and hold them accountable as well,” Manly said.
During the investigation, it came to light that there had been previous complaints against the longtime teacher.
A female student reported that Berndt had tried to fondle her in September 1993, but not enough evidence emerged to pursue charges at the time, authorities said. Two former students, now adults, also came forward, saying they had reported that Berndt appeared to touch himself inappropriately during class.
But Berndt’s personnel file was clean, officials said, a discovery that led the district to review employee records going back decades and to consolidate information and root out potential problem employees. The district submitted or resubmitted for review hundreds of reports of alleged misconduct to the state Commission on Teacher Credentialing.
Deasy also reiterated a zero-tolerance policy for employee misconduct that resulted in some parents and employees accusing him of overreacting. The number of teachers pulled from classrooms for investigation ballooned.
Reports of possible inappropriate conduct soared, from 19 in the week before Berndt’s arrest to 77 the week after, according to district records.
Parents also complained about a dearth of information regarding teachers or other employees under investigation.
The case also prompted Deasy and other L.A. Unified officials to push for legislation that would speed the teacher dismissal process. The bill was vehemently opposed by the California Teachers Association, United Teachers Los Angeles and other teacher unions, which called it an attack on due process rights. It failed in committee.