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Teacher charged in Miramonte sex scandal pleads not guilty

Juliana D. Norwood | 2/22/2012, 5 p.m.

A former South Los Angeles-area elementary school teacher who allegedly took photos of blindfolded and gagged students with a roach on their faces or spoons of semen held to their mouths pleaded not guilty Tuesday to charges of committing lewd acts on nearly two dozen children.

Mark Henry Berndt, 61, is due back in court March 28 for a hearing to determine if there is enough evidence for him to stand trial. Berndt, who taught for more than 30 years at Miramonte Elementary, remains jailed in lieu of $23 million bail.

Berndt, who was arrested at his Torrance home on Jan. 30, is charged with 23 counts of committing a lewd act on a child between 2005 and 2011 involving 23 children who were 7 to 10 years old, according to the district attorney's office.

Berndt's attorney, Victor Acevedo, told reporters outside court that he has been informed that "the sheriff's department in Twin Towers (correctional facility), which is where my client is currently housed, has essentially used the speaker system, the loudspeaker system, to identify him as a child molester to other inmates."

" ...We cannot have the sheriff's department deputies acting in such a way to essentially put a bull's-eye on his head, so to speak," the defense lawyer said, noting that he is concerned for his client's safety.

"My understanding is that it did name the particular dorm where he was at," Acevedo said. "...Anyone accused of these charges that are in the custody of the sheriff's department always runs the risk of their personal safety, for obvious reasons."

Reached by phone after the brief court hearing, Steve Whitmore, a spokesman for the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department said, "We didn't know anything about this. As soon as we heard it, we launched an investigation."

Berndt's attorney also said he wants an "entire copy" of the prosecution's file on Berndt.

Deputy District Attorney Darci Lanphere told Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Marcelita Haynes that the prosecution had given the defense more than 200 photographs involving the alleged victims named in the criminal complaint, but had not turned over other photos.

"As you know, there's a continuing investigation in this case and I really can't discuss that any further," Sandi Gibbons of the district attorney's office told reporters outside the Metropolitan courthouse. "However, the discovery that is being provided to the defense involves the victims in this case. The judge has agreed to look in the camera (privately) at other photographs that the defense said they want. But, at this point in time, it's either unidentified children or children who were identified later."

Berndt was the first of two former Miramonte teachers to be charged within less than a week. The other, Martin Springer, 49, is charged with three felony counts of lewd act upon a child involving one girl, and is free on $300,000 bail while awaiting his next court appearance April 16.

Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent John Deasy said Berndt was removed from the classroom when allegations arose in January 2011, and he was fired from his job at Miramonte at the next school board meeting.