Sexual 'tasting games' teacher pleads no contest

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

Mark Berndt, 62, entered the legal equivalent of guilty pleas to 23 charges at a hearing Friday. The plea agreement calls for the former Miramonte Elementary School teacher to be sentenced to 25 years in prison.

John Manly, an attorney who represents 30 of Berndt's students and their parents, said Thursday that he was notified of the plea by prosecutors, who urged a deal because "they were concerned about re-traumatizing the children at trial."

He called the agreement 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 admitted that he blindfolded students while spoon-feeding them semen-laced cookies and sometimes put 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.

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.