LOS ANGELES _ Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent John Deasy has launched an investigation into how a veteran teacher charged with 23 counts of lewd conduct with current and former students could have escaped suspicion for so long.
Former Miramonte Elementary teacher Mark Berndt, 61, is accused of gagging students with tape, blindfolding them and spoon-feeding his semen to some current and former students in his classroom in what he described to the children as a "tasting game." He took hundreds of photos of the children, many with a milky substance around their mouths, authorities said.
The lewd conduct charges cover a period from July 1, 2005, to June 28, 2011. Most of the alleged crimes occurred from mid-2009 to mid-2011.
"How do I make sense out of the fact that this took place over a number of years and no one seemed to know about that?" Deasy said in an interview Wednesday morning. "I want to understand it. I'm definitely trying to understand how someone could not have known."
Deasy said the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department instructed him to hold off on an internal probe until it filed charges, which happened Tuesday. Deasy's team will include attorneys and human resources administrators. He said he will receive a briefing at least once a day during the early stages of the investigation.
Up to this point, Deasy said, he has not received word of any previous complaint or issue involving Berndt, a teacher whom some parents and students have said they held in high regard.
District officials removed Berndt from his class immediately on seeing the pictures of the students on Jan. 6, 2011. At the time, numerous parents complained about Berndt's removal, said former Superintendent Ramon C. Cortines, who was the school district's top official at the time.
Officials did not release any reason for Berndt's removal while the sheriff's investigation was in progress, a decision some parents are now criticizing.
The Board of Education voted to fire Berndt in a closed session on Feb. 15, 2011. He challenged the termination and ended up resigning. He was arrested Monday.