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Alleged 'Sex Game' Teacher Mark Berndt Went Free for Over a Year: How Did LAUSD, L.A. Sheriff Let This Happen?

It's hard to imagine child-molester charges more horrific than those pinned on ex-Miramonte Elementary School teacher Mark Berndt, 63, yesterday.

The L.A. County Sheriff's Special Victims Bureau arrested the teacher, who had been at the school for over 30 years, for binding and gagging at least 23 third-graders. He allegedly let cockroaches crawl on their faces and spoon-fed them his own semen. Investigators say they confiscated over 400 photos of the in-class "sex game," which they believe recurred over a two-year period (from 2008 to 2010).

If true, this would clearly be one of the most sickening abuses of power ever to go unchecked in an American classroom. Yet the amount of time it took to put Berndt behind bars ...

... even after officials had seen some of the photos is near incomprehensible.

LAUSD Superintendent John Deasy told reporters this morning that Berndt was banned from campus as soon as a Redondo Beach film processor turned the photos over to local law enforcement. (And what a stroke of luck, in this digital age, that Berndt made the self-sabotaging decision to develop his kiddie porn the old-fashioned way.)

Still, Berndt wasn't officially fired until March -- likely thanks to an unbreakable United Teachers Los Angeles union contract. The same contract that allows "lemons" to keep their jobs for eternity, no matter their performance. See L.A. Weekly print story: "LAUSD's Dance of the Lemons."

According to a 2009 teacher-effectiveness rating by the L.A. Times, Berndt was seriously lagging in math, and his students scored below average in English progress, as well.

Miramonte's principal, Martin Sandoval

Damian Dovarganes/Associated PressMiramonte's principal, Martin Sandoval

Then there's the obvious fact that no one was watching him. Superintendent Deasy told the press this morning that anyone walking past Berndt's classroom would be able to see right in. And Sheriff's Lieutenant Carlos Marquez says that "During the lunch breaks or recess, he'd go out to the playground and entice [students] back to the classroom."

So where was Principal Martin Sandoval during all this? (A secretary at Miramonte tells us to "call back tomorrow morning," as Sandoval is "in a meeting right now.") Was no one talking to the kids about what they did in class all day?

The students at Miramonte Elementary have been betrayed by the district and the state. Their campus has been left behind to rot, academically: It ranks in the bottom 20 percent of California schools with similar demographics (almost entirely Latino) and in the bottom 10 percent overall.

Teachers being held accountable is a make-or-break situation for vulnerable youth.

Which brings us to Outrage No. 2:

The Sheriff's Department let Berndt roam free for over a year before he was arrested and placed under $2.3 million bail.

During this time, a longtime neighbor of Berndt's tells the Los Angeles Times that he saw the accused child molester riding his bike with a young girl in Hermosa Beach, as recently as a month ago:

Berndt seemed unnerved when [neighbor John McManus] spotted him, the neighbor said, and later told him: "Don't tell my sister I was with this young girl."

The neighbor said Berndt told him the girl was one of his students and that they had ridden the bicycle nearly as far as Marina del Rey and back.

He said he frequently saw Berndt hanging out around the Redondo Beach pier, drinking beer and gawking at girls.

Lieutenant Marquez argues, today, that investigators were "monitoring" the ex-teacher in the months after he was fired, and that any immediate danger was mitigated by the school board's decision to kick Berndt off campus. He tells KNX news radio that the Sheriff's Department wanted to gather all possible evidence before making an arrest. For instance, DNA testing on the semen-covered spoon was only completed about "a month and a half ago." From the Associated Press:

Authorities could have arrested Berndt on misdemeanor charges when the investigation began but chose to build a stronger felony case, Marquez said. He could get a life sentence if he is convicted.

Berndt, who has no previous arrest record, was placed under surveillance and is not believed to have had contact with children during the investigation. The childless bachelor lives a few blocks from two parks and an elementary school.

Jesus Christ. Why couldn't they lock him up in the meantime, while they built the case? If the 40 initial "sex game" photos were damning enough to warrant Berndt's immediate termination, no prosecutor in his or her right mind could turn such hideous evidence away cold-turkey.

LAUSD's decision not to notify parents of the alleged monster in their midst is similarly mind-boggling. Marquez tells the AP that investigators are looking for more victims, and are advising STD testing for some of the students -- medical and emotional baggage they could have been carrying around for an entire year.

We've contacted various legal experts for some insight into how it's even possible for LAUSD and L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca's department to have dropped the ball this hard.

[@simone_electra / swilson@laweekly.com / @LAWeeklyNews]