Teacher in cockroach and bondage case pleads innocent

LOS ANGELES Tue Feb 21, 2012 2:37pm EST

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LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - A Los Angeles-area elementary school teacher accused of taking bondage-style photos of students, some with cockroaches on their faces, pleaded not guilty on Tuesday to 23 counts of lewd acts on children.

Mark Berndt, 61, entered the not guilty pleas during a hearing in Los Angeles Superior Court attended by parents from Miramonte Elementary School, where he taught for more than 30 years.

Berndt, the first of two teachers accused of molesting students at Miramonte in unrelated cases, was ordered back to court on March 28 for a preliminary hearing in the case. He is being held in lieu of $23 million bail.

The second Miramonte teacher, Martin Springer, 49, was charged earlier this month with three counts of lewd acts on a child and is free on $300,000 bail.

Berndt was arrested in January following a year-long investigation that began when photos showing blindfolded and gagged students were turned over to police by a drug store photo technician.

In some of the pictures children were pictured with large, live, "Madagascar-type" cockroaches on their faces, sheriff's officials say.

In others, students were seen with spoons of a substance later determined to be semen held to their faces, according to authorities

The accusations have touched off protests by infuriated parents and prompted Los Angeles County school officials to replace the entire staff at Miramonte during an exhaustive investigation.

(Reporting by Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Paul Thomasch)

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