This 2003 photo provided by Flor Cervantes shows former Miramonte Elementary teacher Mark Berndt with her sister, Angelica Zuniga, then a third-grader, at the school in Los Angeles.AP
Ivis Urbina, right, with her granddaughter Alexa Agillon, 6, protest with others outside Miramonte Elementary school in Los Angeles Monday, Feb. 6, 2012.AP2012
The setting is perfect for pedophiles; 1,400 youngsters, ripe for the picking, their parents unable to protect them for fear for their own lives. Well, not their lives, but their lives in the United States. The parents are undocumented immigrants, and their children students in the now infamous Miramonte Elementary School in South Los Angeles.
Miramonte is one of the largest grade schools and, part of the second largest public district in the nation, Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), with around 700,000 students, three quarters of whom are Latino.
Wracked by budget cuts, LAUSD is plagued by over-crowding, delinquency and a 25% dropout rate. The surrounding city seems weary of supporting a system that increasingly serves the children of residents who are poor, disenfranchised and in many cases illegal. Many parents are not fluent in English, and their inability to interact with their children’s teachers is further restricted by the hyper shyness and deference to authority of the undocumented.
Living on the rough edge of L.A., they send their kids off to school believing it to be one of the safer places in their lives. For their part, the children are taught by their families to listen and learn, to be respectful, and to not cause problems.
That paranoid context allowed a 61-year old dirt bag substitute teacher named Mark Brendt to perpetrate crimes against those school children that outrage and disgust.
Uncovered only when a CVS photo shop clerk reported developing sickening pictures of children being spoon fed by Brendt a white liquid that subsequent DNA tests revealed to be semen, what allegedly happened at Miramonte has roiled the district, the city and the nation.
When the story broke, a quarter of the panicked parents kept their children home. Several dozen risked the instant justice of the dreaded immigration authorities to picket in front of the main school entrance some carrying hand-wrought banners which read, “We the parents demand that our children be protected from lewd teacher acts.”
“These allegations are appalling and heart-wrenching,” said Education Secretary Arne Duncan in a statement issued exclusively to my program on 790 KABC. “Every parent and child should be able to trust that schools are a safe haven, and everyone who works in a school setting should be held to the highest standards of conduct. I urge the police to do everything possible to protect these children and hold the adults accountable, and I salute the district for taking immediate steps to stabilize the school and restore the learning environment.”
With Berndt behind bars pending $23 million in bail, what the district did was extraordinary. After a second teacher 49-year old Martin Singer was arrested on charges of lewd conduct last week, Superintendant John Deasy replaced all 120 members of the staff of Miramonte.
Even the embattled teachers union, which many outraged Angelenos accused of protecting bad, incompetent and even abusive teachers, urged rapid action, saying in a statement that, “We support a thorough, vigorous and fair investigation of all the allegations.”
And Tuesday, Brian Claypool one of the growing band of attorneys representing the families of alleged victims reported that he had told the L.A. County Sheriff’s Special Victims unit that a third teacher was involved.
"She was a teacher who would escort little girls into Berndt's classroom when he was all alone,” Claypool, who appeared on my 790 KABC program Wednesday, said. “Berndt would come over in the middle of day, whisper in her ear, and they would giggle, and then the female teacher would pick out two girls, escort them through a common door, so that they were stuck with a pedophile in this classroom. And that's where he was blindfolding them and spoon feeding them semen."
I’ve been around a long time, and have seen and heard of many outrageous deeds by perverts. If these allegations are true, this ranks among the worst. And I am haunted by the fact that over the course of Berndt’s 31-year reign at Miramonte some of those children told some of those parents that something weird was happening in their classrooms. But mom and dad were afraid and didn’t know who to trust so they were as silent as lambs.
Geraldo Rivera is a senior columnist for Fox News Latino.