By The Associated Press
LOS ANGELES (AP) — The scandal embroiling an elementary school where two teachers were arrested last week on lewdness charges widened Wednesday with revelations of 200 more inappropriate photos of children and that one teacher sent warmly written birthday cards and presents to students who participated in his “games.”
The case of a third-grade teacher accused of feeding children his own semen in bizarre “tasting games” in his classroom over a five-year period has garnered international headlines.
It has also roiled the nation’s second-largest school district, which has a sizable number of students who come from homes with illegal immigrants. Many parents at the school have said they have been reluctant to report suspicions about the teachers because of their immigration status.
The new developments came as Los Angeles Unified School District prepared to reopen Miramonte Elementary School on Thursday with an entirely new staff.
According to three lawsuits filed against the district Tuesday, teacher Mark Berndt sent birthday cards to some of the girls, asking how they were adjusting to the fourth grade. He also wrote warm notes such as “surely no teacher could ever have a more wonderful student than you!!” and “P.P.S. The Roaches Say `Hi!’”
He signed the notes: “Mr. B.”
The cards were provided as exhibits in the lawsuits, which were filed on behalf of three former students of Berndt. They allege that the district and Principal Martin Sandoval failed to adequately safeguard them against Berndt and a second teacher arrested, Martin Springer, who faces three lewdness charges in connection with the fondling of a second-grader.
Berndt gave one girl a CD dated Feb, 12, 2010, writing on it “Happy 9th B-Day – Hope You Enjoy the Songs!” that included such tracks as “Never on Sunday” and “Gonna Get Along Without You.”
An email message seeking comment from LAUSD wasn’t immediately returned
Sheriff’s investigators, meanwhile, said Wednesday they have found 200 additional photos they believe were taken by Berndt who is accused of committing lewd acts on 23 children from 2005 to 2010.
The photos were found late last week at the same pharmacy where a photo lab technician had first noticed odd pictures that led to Berndt’s arrest, sheriff’s Lt. Carlos Marquez said. The recent discovery brings the total number of photos to roughly 600.
Many of the photos involve children already identified by authorities, but there may be other potential victims, Marquez said.
Like the other pictures, the photos show children ages 6 to 10 blindfolded and being fed a milky, white liquid authorities believe was semen on spoons or cookies, Marquez said.
Berndt, 61, taught for 32 years at the south Los Angeles school, where the 120-member staff, from janitors to principal, was replaced this week amid outrage among parents.
The school was closed Tuesday and Wednesday and will reopen with employees hired from a list of recently laid off workers.
The old employees will be based at a nearby school under construction as they undergo interviews in a district investigation as to how the alleged acts went undetected for so long.
The furor over Berndt’s arrest led two parents to come forward last Thursday to complain that Springer, who had worked at the school for 26 years, fondled two second-grade girls in his classroom.
Springer, 49, pleaded not guilty Tuesday after he was charged with committing three lewd acts upon one girl in 2009. Bail was set at $300,000.
Detectives said there is no evidence that the two men acted in concert.
More allegations of inappropriate conduct by other school employees also surfaced.
The mother of an 11-year-old boy told the Los Angeles Times that a teacher’s aide, a woman in her 50s, sent at least three letters to her son in 2009, including one that said: “When you get close to me, even if you give me the chills, I like that. Don’t tell nobody about this!”
The aide signed one letter “Sad Girl” because she was being transferred to another school, the mother said.
The mother said she went to the sheriff’s department, which directed her to the school. During a meeting that included the mother, her son, his teacher and an assistant principal, the teacher’s aide acknowledged writing letters and said she had a grandmotherly affection for the boy.
The aide no longer works for the school system, district spokeswoman Gayle Pollard-Terry said.
Parents at the school who are illegal immigrants have been reassured by sheriff’s officers and district administrators that no cases will be referred to immigration agents.
Manuel Flores, father of a 9-year-old girl at the school, said he was anxious about even attending a parents’ meeting at the school Monday night. “It was full of police,” he said.
At that meeting, Superintendent John Deasy stressed to parents that no one will be even asked about their immigration status if they come forward to report a crime.
The district set up a confidential hotline for Miramonte parents who may be hesitant to speak directly to detectives.
Martha Escutia, a lawyer who represents several families, said fear is rampant in the community.
“One little girl told me she doesn’t want to come forward because she’s afraid her parents will be deported,” she said.
After Berndt’s arrest on Jan. 30, complaints about him surfaced dating back to 1994, but authorities did not act on them.
Berndt remains jailed on $23 million bail and could face life in prison if convicted.