John Cádiz Klemack
Former Miramonte Elementary teacher Mark Berndt pleaded no contest Friday to 23 counts of lewd acts with children. John Cádiz Klemack reports from downtown Los Angeles for the NBC4 News at 5 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 15, 2013.
A former Southern California elementary school teacher accused of sexually abusing students -- allegedly taking photos of them when they were blindfolded and gagged -- pleaded no contest Friday to charges stemming from a case that sparked outrage in a South LA community.
Full Coverage: Miramonte Abuse Scandal
A no contest plea by Mark Berndt, 62, avoids a trial at which Miramonte Elementary School students -- 7 to 10 years old at the time of the crimes -- would likely testify. Several of the victims' parents testified Friday about the pain their families endured.
"I wake up every morning asking God to give me the strength to explain this to my daughter," said mother of a 9-year-old victim, speaking in Spanish through an interpreter. "That one of her favorite teachers did this to her."
Berndt, of Torrance, was charged with 23 counts of committing lewd acts on a child between 2005 and 2011. He pleaded no contest as each charge was read in court before he was sentenced to 25 years in prison.
Berndt, who will receive about two years of credit for time served, previously entered a not guilty plea.
The victims' attorneys said earlier this week they believe Berndt will make the no contest plea Friday to avoid life in prision.
The packed courtroom included victims' parents and students. About seven to 10 victim-impact statements were delivered during the hearing.
"Our lives have been destroyed by this," said a weeping parent.
"I'm pleading not to give him only 25 years, he deserves more," said another parent. "I don't think he's sorry."
Berndt's attoney said at the hearing this his client is "apologetic, he is sorry, he is remorseful."
"Mr. Berndt is not a monster -- he's not an evil person," said attorney Manny Medrano. "Mistakes were made. At no time was there any credible evidence that Mr. Berndt inappropriately touched student or touched them in a sexual manner."
Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent John Deasy issued a statement after the hearing.
"While the school district was not a party to the prosecutor's plea deal with Mr. Berndt, we are relieved that the students and families will be able to put this part of the proceedings behind them," said Deasy. "As a community of educators, we remain tireless advocates for student safety. We will continue to implement reforms and push for statewide changes to protect students, including calling for a strong teacher dismissal bill that will enable us to remove teachers who violate the public’s trust and hurt students."
Later, Deasy verbally spoke out about the trial, angered over the difficulty in working with state legislature to change laws that make it easier to fire employees accused of sexual misconduct with students.
"If my tone appears angry, it's because I've been angry for two years," Deasy said. "I'm angry that we've been unable to change laws to protect students."
"All I hear through the process is, 'I'm not comfortable with those changes,'" he continued. "Really? You're not comfortable with those changes? Come with me and spend time with some of the victims at Miramonte. It is beyond my comprehension as to why we cannot stand on higher ground."
The accusations against Berndt began in late 2010 when a film processor at a store contacted police about images that depicted children in a classroom. Some were wearing blindfolds and had tape covering their mouths, according to prosecutors.
Miramonte Scandal: Timeline of Events
He also allegedly laced cookies with his semen and fed them to children in a classroom tasting game, according to authorities.
Berndt was fired soon after the investigation and arrested in January 2012. The case stirred outrage among parents at the South LA school, which was closed and reopened with a new staff in February 2012.
The school district settled 61 of the more than 120 civil lawsuits stemming from the case last month.