In "OnCentral on Foot," we approach people at random in the streets of South L.A. and ask them their thoughts on the world and community in which they live. This time, we asked about the Miramonte Elementary School scandal. Former Miramonte teacher Mark Berndt was recently arrested on suspicion of committing lewd acts on 23 children in his classroom since at least 2005 -- and more cases are coming forward. Officials are still unsure how long the alleged behavior has been taking place. KPCC's Lisa Brenner has the background story.
What's your reaction to everything that's been happening at Miramonte?
Well first of all, yesterday I was still in shock because I've known the teacher for a very long time -- I'm talking since the 1980s. [My family] knew him because he was one of my sister's teacher -- we all knew him. We all knew on the block who he was, but it never, ever crossed our heads that he would have done something like this.
He never did anything to arouse suspicion?
No! No, he would see you and just say, "Hi!" And even myself -- I have seven kids that went to school there, and a 12-year-old that's still attending Miramonte, and it never crossed my mind. Yesterday I was still in shock that he'd do something like that. And now that I'm hearing everything and I'm like, "Oh my God," and I'm wondering if some of the people that I know went through it, or their kids. You never know.
How do you feel now?
I feel very sad and angry. Even last year, there were rumors -- I think that the parents had the right to know what was going on.
So you never heard from school administration?
No, no, like I said, we only thought they were rumors. At the time, I did hear something and I called my sister and told them what I heard about Mr. Berndt. And at the time I said it's probably rumors because if it were true, they would have notified us. But they never did.
Are you planning on keeping your 12-year-old at Miramonte?
Right now, I don't even know. I don't -- I just think that they shouldn't have kept it a secret for a year. They should have notified at least the parents who had their kids with him at the time. Because he was still teaching last year.
Interview translated from Spanish
Were you a student at Miramonte Elementary?
Yes. I'm from El Salvador, and I've been here for four years -- I was in Miramonte in 2009, during the ninth grade.
Did you know the teacher?
Yes. Not personally, but I know who he is.
What's your reaction to what's happened here?
Confused. He's a teacher, it's little kids -- it presents a huge danger to the little kids.
When you heard the news, what was your reaction?
I was like, wow -- this is a huge deal, you know? It made me think about how bad this was, because we have to set a good example for the kids. We can't leave a horrible example like this, because if we're setting a bad example, then what good are the teachers in the schools? Why do we let teachers like this teach classes to kids? Kids who are growing up, and who are going to grow up with their mentality scarred because this happened.
They're going to grow up in fear, and if one day they decide to start a career as a teacher, or in some kind of leadership role, maybe with this still in their head they'll continue the cycle. The teacher who was abusing these kids and mistreating them both physically and mentally is horrible because the kids are our future. They're bringing the new generation, and if they're coming from a place of malformation in their heads from when they were kids, they'll bring that with them too.. then who knows if they'll commit the same crimes?
What action do you think should be taken by the school?
There should be more precautions regarding the teachers the school employs. There has to be more -- I don't know, maybe put cameras in the classrooms. Teachers need to be examined psychologically and emotionally.
What should happen to the teacher?
He needs to get a punishment that matches this huge abuse.
You seem to be kind of shocked, in a daze. Is it because of this?
Yes. I look shocked because I've never heard anything but good things about this school.
Was it a good school when you were here?
Yes, it was great. I learned a lot of great things here but now that we've realized this crime happened, we're all shocked. I only live four houses away.
Note: Jones declined to have her face photographed for the sake of her daughter, a former student at Miramonte Elementary.
What's your history with Miramonte?
My daughter, who was living with her dad at the time, used to go here, along with three of my boys. But my boys say they didn't have him as a teacher. She did. And we were talking about this teacher about a month ago, just talking about old stories, and from what I hear, my daughter was saying, "Oh, he was cool." And my husband said that was [his] mom's teacher! And his auntie's teacher. So [Berndt] has been around my in-law's family for years. So my daughter came home yesterday and I asked her, "What was your teacher's name again?" And she said, "What teacher?" and I told her the one at Miramonte. She said, "Oh! Mr. Berndt?" ... I asked her what he did to the kids and she didn't really say anything.
When you asked your daughter what the teacher's name was and she said Mr. Berndt, and you realized it was the same guy who was in the news, how did you feel?
Everybody keeps saying my daughter would have said something if something had happened to her, because she tells everything. And my husband said, "I don't think he'd do anything to [our daughter] because [our daughter] talks. And I said that maybe he was doing it [under the pretense] of playing a game. So that's what I want to ask her now -- did you ever play any games with him? Did he feed you anything? That's why I'm heading to her school now, to pull her out and ask her, because I'm getting very nervous and worried about this teacher ... I talked to another parent who said [Berndt] was her teacher, and was her son's teacher! She said the school has been investigating this man for a year.
So I want to know how long he's been doing this. Did he do it? Or is this a rumor? What photos does he have of the kids? Was my daughter in one of those photos or did he do perverted things to my daughter? I'm trying not to think about that right now -- I hope he didn't do anything to her. My daughter said, "He's cool," and then she also said, "Oh, he used to look at us funny." So I don't know. I went to sleep with a headache last night ... She was going here in '08 and '09, so I want to know when he started doing this. Has he been doing this for years? Or did he just start?
So what's your plan of action?
I don't know. I might sue the school if they knew that this was going on with the kids. And this school has been around for years and a lot of people went to this school -- my husband, my daughter and her dad.
Does Miramonte have a good reputation?
Yeah! Everybody says Miramonte is the school. But I want to know if my daughter was touched. That's all I want to know. And if I do find out I'm going to take action.
What actions should be taken against the principal?
I think he needs to be fired. What I think, nowadays, they need to put cameras in every school, because kids are getting slapped, beaten. I look at that on YouTube ... stuff is going on school busses. We need to look into it. ... I want to really know what's going on and why they're covering it up.
Right now, how are you feeling?
I'm hoping she wasn't a victim. But if it comes out that she was, then I'm going to be really mad. And I'm going to take action. ... when [Miramonte] knew this was going on, they should have stopped him from working. They should have took him off, but he was still coming to this school. What if he just went mad one day, and killed one of the kids? ... What pictures do they have? That's what I want to see. Is it naked? Nude? They said he was tying kids up, putting roaches on their heads. That's all I can say right now but I don't have any real details from my daughter. I just went to sleep last night trying not to think of it. If she was [a victim], we'll get her some counseling, see what we can do.
Interview translated from Spanish
Do you have a child that goes here?
Yes. My daughter, who is seven, has been going here for about a year and a half, and my worry is if the teacher had been doing this for a year, and the administration knew, why didn't the school notify us parents or suspend the teacher? I didn't hear the news about this until the past few days, on the news. ... My worry is why they kept it from us.
Where is your daughter right now?
She's at home right now. She's on vacation. Her school session starts again on August 8. She won't be back until then. She was originally supposed to return on February 22, but the school changed the return date from that to August 8.
That's a big change. Do you think it has something to do with the events of the past few days?
I think so. That is a big change.
Was Berndt your daughter's teacher at any point?
No. I don't think so. But my daughter knows who he is -- she saw him on TV and said she recognized him. I asked her if he'd ever tried to give her, I don't know, a candy or something and she said no.
It still seems like you're worried.
More than anything, it's because the school didn't tell us about this from the beginning. I saw this on the news -- and I didn't know anything until that point.
So how do you feel now?
Worried about the silence -- there isn't any communication between the parents and the teachers. How can they have remained so secretive and not notify us -- we don't know anything. Parents are like second parents. In Latino culture, the teachers are extremely respected by us, because they teach us. How can we trust them when something like this happens and the schools don't tell us? That's the worry I have.