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Sexual 'Tasting games' Los Angeles teacher to plead no contest

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed. The Associated Press
Friday, November 15, 2013 - 8:25 am

LOS ANGELES — A once-respected former teacher accused of committing lewd acts on children in what he called "tasting games" is expected to plead no contest Friday to all the charges against him.

Mark Berndt, 62, plans to enter the legal equivalent of guilty pleas to 23 charges and receive 25 years in prison, according to John Manly, an attorney who represents 30 of his Miramonte Elementary School students and their parents.

Manly said Thursday that he was notified of the plea by prosecutors, who urged a plea deal because "they were concerned about re-traumatizing the children at trial."

He called the agreement, first reported by the Daily News of Los Angeles, a victory for his clients.

"He's going to jail essentially for the rest of his life," Manly said. "You can't ask for more than that."

The district attorney's office and Berndt's lawyer declined to comment in advance of the court hearing.

Berndt is expected to admit that he blindfolded students while spoon-feeding them semen-laced cookies and sometimes putting huge cockroaches on them.

Sean Rossall, a district spokesman, said 63 lawsuits filed on behalf of victims have been settled for a total of $29.5 million, and 71 more are pending.

He said the district had not seen the plea agreement and wouldn't comment until it's entered in court.

Berndt, who taught for 32 years at the South Los Angeles school, was removed in 2011.

The allegations against him came to light when a drugstore photo technician noticed dozens of odd photos of blindfolded third-graders and reported them to authorities. Investigators said they discovered a plastic spoon in Berndt's classroom trash bin. Tests found traces of semen on it.

The Miramonte case led to a wide-ranging overhaul of how the nation's second-largest school district handles allegations of sexual abuse after it was revealed that previous complaints about Berndt's behavior were ignored. It also showed how slowly state officials act to censure teachers and led to a flurry of allegations of teacher-student sex abuse in the district and in other school systems.

Shortly after Berndt's arrest, the school district temporarily removed all 76 of the school's teachers, along with staff and administrators, putting them on leave and having them report to an empty high school nearby. Six months later, when the new school year began, 43 of them returned to a restructured Miramonte with a new principal. The rest either retired or went to new schools. None was accused of any wrongdoing.

Manly denounced the district for allowing Berndt to continue teaching after complaints in the 1990s.

"For all intents and purposes, this man murdered these children emotionally," he said, noting all of the children are in therapy. He said some have developed severe eating disorders as a result of the abuse.

Another Miramonte teacher, Martin Springer, is charged with lewd acts on a child in a case involving a second-grader that authorities said was fondled in class in 2009. Springer is awaiting trial.