(Advisory: Please note that this story contains graphic content.)
By Alex Dobuzinskis
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - A former Los Angeles elementary school teacher sent to prison for 25 years for taking bondage-style photos of his pupils may have abused over 100 children in all, groping and exposing himself to a number of them, a judge has found.
The arrest of Mark Berndt in 2012 sparked widespread outrage when it was revealed that, between 2005 and 2010, he had taken pictures of blindfolded children, with some photographs showing spoonfuls of semen held to their faces.
Berndt, 63, pleaded no contest last year to charges of lewd conduct involving 23 children in the criminal case centered on the photos. But revelations of a potentially wider scope of abuse have arisen in a civil lawsuit set for trial in July against his former employer, the Los Angeles Unified School District.
“Berndt reportedly abused a large number of elementary school children - perhaps more than 100,” Los Angeles Judge John Shepard Wiley said on Wednesday in a tentative ruling based on findings from the local Sheriff’s Department investigation of the Miramonte Elementary School instructor.
Sheriff’s investigators, in a 512-page report, also found that Berndt molested his students, getting them to touch him inappropriately and exposing himself to them by sitting in short shorts without underwear, Wiley wrote.
Wiley’s order did not disclose the period of time over which the suspected broader abuse by Berndt might have occurred.
The school district last year reached a roughly $30 million settlement with 63 children and their families, who had sued over abuse by Berndt, a teacher in a working class and largely Latino school.
There are about 70 more plaintiffs in the civil case headed to trial in July, said district spokesman Sean Rossall.
Berndt’s attorney, Manny Medrano, said his client never molested or exposed himself to children, despite the findings of Wiley’s tentative ruling.
“Just because it’s in that (sheriff‘s) report, that 512-page report, doesn’t mean it’s true,” Medrano said. “Just because there’s smoke doesn’t mean there’s fire.”
Attorneys for some families who brought lawsuits against the district related to Berndt told a news conference on Friday that district officials in 2008 destroyed thousands of pages of abuse complaints involving teachers.
Rossall said those were copies of records already held by law enforcement, and the district was obligated to destroy them to avoid violating state law by releasing information to the wrong parties.
Reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis, editing by Cynthia Johnston and Gunna Dickson