Vulnerable children, plied with attention and gifts and groomed to trust adult predators.
LOS ANGELES – The charges are shocking, but the choice of victims comes as little surprise.
By Bob Riha Jr., USA TODAY
The horrors alleged at Miramonte Elementary School echo previous cases of sexual abuse: vulnerable children, plied with attention and gifts and groomed to trust adult predators.
The abuses claimed here may be different — children blindfolded, gagged and fed a substance investigators say was semen. But the setting follows a pattern alleged at Penn State University, where former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky is accused of using a charity he founded to target vulnerable boys from single-parent homes or troubled families, people unlikely to speak out.
At Miramonte, the victims could hardly have been more disadvantaged: The 1,400 students are virtually all from poor Latino homes, a majority from immigrant families where English isn't spoken at home, and some with parents lacking legal immigrant status. It's a voiceless community where fear is ingrained — fear of authority, fear of the police, fear of immigration enforcement, fear of retribution.
The hard-pressed barrio school is just the kind of place where an adult with bad intentions could take advantage of a child, knowing there was little chance a victimized family would report the acts. Or if they did, little chance they would be believed.
"You have lots of the very poor who don't even know what their rights are," says Martha Escutia, a former state senator who once represented the south Los Angeles neighborhood. "You have the undercurrent of immigration, undercurrent of poverty. Miramonte is not Malibu. It's not a sophisticated community.
"It's a perfect recipe for a predator."
It's a recipe that's been followed here before.
A former teacher's aide, Ricardo Guevara, is serving a 15-year sentence in state prison after being convicted in 2004 of sexually abusing three kindergarten girls at Miramonte. The Los Angeles school system was ordered to pay $1.6 million to his three victims' families.
"There are striking similarities," says Beverly Hills lawyer Keith Davidson, who represented those girls. "It's amazing that you'd have lightning strike twice and then three times in the same school."
Davidson now represents four children, three boys and one girl, ages 9 to 13, who were students of accused teacher Mark Berndt, the man at the center of the scandal.
Berndt, 61, who was removed from his third-grade class a year ago, was charged last month with 23 counts of committing lewd acts on children ages 6 to 10 from 2005 through 2010. Investigators say they have found 600 photographs Berndt took of the children, many performing what he told them was a game. In some, the children are eating cookies with a substance the district attorney's office alleges was Berndt's semen.
While investigating claims against Berndt, the Los Angeles sheriff's department brought charges against another Miramonte teacher. Martin Springer, 49, pleaded not guilty this week to charges he fondled a second-grade girl.
Springer taught at Miramonte for 26 years. Berndt taught there 32 years, a span that saw the neighborhood transform from a heavily African-American population to almost uniformly Latino.
Berndt had been the subject of complaints before. The sheriff's department investigated a September 1993 incident at the school, but prosecutors decided they didn't have enough evidence to charge him, said Sandi Gibbons, spokeswoman for District Attorney Steve Cooley....
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