Complete Coverage of the ongoing investigation of a South LA elementary school

Miramonte Family Presses Forward With Lawsuit Against LA Unified School District

By Patrick Healy
|  Wednesday, Mar 13, 2013  |  Updated 11:33 PM PDT
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The mother of a Miramonte Elementary student allegedly abused by former teacher Mark Berndt says her daughter continues to suffer, but will testify against her former educator

The mother of a Miramonte Elementary student allegedly abused by former teacher Mark Berndt says her daughter continues to suffer, but will testify against her former educator "to to protect other kids." Patrick Healy reports for the NBC4 News at 5 p.m. on March 13, 2013.

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Depression, anxiety and insomnia have become almost daily challenges, according to the mother of a student allegedly abused by a teacher while attending Miramonte Elementary School.

Her family is among the 71 not included in the settlements negotiated between 58 families and the Los Angeles Unified School District.

"I want the system to change to avoid this happening to other kids," said the mother, who asked to be identified simply as "Maria" in order to protect her daughter's privacy.

Maria spoke to NBCLA at the South Pasadena officer of her attorney Luis Carrillo.

"Justice for her is the district preventing this from ever occurring again," Carrillo said.

Maria's daughter was allegedly abused during the 2005-06 school year, when she was in the third grade class of teacher Mark Berndt, according to Maria.

Berndt was removed from teaching in 2011, and a year later, he was arrested and charged with 23 child abuse counts, allegedly involving bizarre deviancies, including feeding children cookies laced with his bodily fluid.

Part of what made his arrest so jolting, Maria recalled, is that Berndt was known as a good, enthusiastic teacher, well-liked both by students and parents.

"But something seemed not right," said Maria, who in retrospect thinks Berndt went too far ingratiating himself with families.

He often attended the birthday parties of his students at their homes, including for Maria's daughter.

In fact, for her quinceañera two years ago – long after leaving Miramonte – the daughter wanted to invite Berndt, but her mother discovered he was no longer teaching.

Then they learned of the criminal charges.

Authorities revealed that a film processing lab had had come forward with photographs of children blindfolded and eating cookies in what investigators determined was Berndt's classroom.

The daughter's "first reaction was denial," Maria said.

What came to her mind were photos her daughter had brought home from class, photos Berndt had taken of children eating cookies.

"People say, 'how could you not know?' I asked every day," Maria said. But her daughter never mentioned anything of concern.

Bringing up the issue again with her daughter was difficult, Maria said.

"But I had to because I found the pictures and wanted to know what else," she said.

The daughter told her Berndt had sometimes tied up children and put on them the Madagascar cockroach he kept in the classroom.

Denial gave way to anxiety, and Maria said her daughter suffers from depression and fear Berndt will suddenly appear, and can sleep only with a light on. Therapy is providing some help.

The daughter is now in high school. She has two brothers: one in middle school, the younger in second grade at Miramonte.

Maria's husband earns enough that she has been able to take a break from her work in fashion design and be a full-time mother to their children.

The family has discussed the possibility that, absent a settlement, their suit against the district will go to trial and Maria’s daughter will face the ordeal of testifying.

"She says if we do this, if we go to trial to protect other kids, like my brother, I'll do it," Maria said.

Mediation with the district currently is "at impasse," Carrillo said.

At a court date on March 26, Carrillo and two other attorneys – Brian Claypool and John Manly – representing additional families suing the district, expect to ask the judge to set a trial date.

In the separate criminal case against Berndt, he has pleaded not guilty, and remains jailed awaiting a preliminary hearing to determine if there is enough evidence to hold him for trial.

Given that her daughter and other Berndt students did not consider themselves victims until approached by law enforcement, Maria was asked if she considers it possible that investigators leaped to the wrong conclusion about Berndt.

"No," she said.

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