Two teachers have been charged with multiple counts of lewd conduct against several students at Miramonte Elementary--a school in South Los Angeles who's student body is made up of 98% Latinos and 2% black students. Lawyers say at least three alleged victims have not been interviewed by law enforcement because their parents fear deportation.
Mark Berndt was charged last week with 23 counts of lewd conduct against children; another teacher, Martin Springer, was charged this week with three counts of lewd conduct. Berndt is alleged to have taken photographs of blindfolded children being spoon-fed his semen, according to the LA Sheriff's newsroom.
The investigation began over a year ago when over 40 photographs depicting children in a school classroom, with their eyes blindfolded and mouths covered with tape, were turned in to law enforcement by a film processor. Parents are furious because they only learned about the investigation last week.
Miramonte Elementary School is located in an unincorporated area of South Los Angeles within the Florence-Firestone area which according to the school is a "predominantly Hispanic" community. It's unclear how many students at the school have undocumented parents but 56% of the students are English language learners, about 1% are considered "migrant" students and the school has a "Migrant Education Program" and an "Emergency Immigrant Education Program," leading many to believe, including the Sheriff, that there may be many parents who fear coming forward because they are undocumented.
"Unlike the Los Angeles Police Department, which has a policy on the books intended to protect undocumented victims and witnesses, the department has two different immigration enforcement partnerships with the federal government," explains Leslie Berestein Rojas at KPCC's "Multi-American."
Because Miramonte is an unincorporated the jurisdiction falls on Los Angeles County Sheriff which has a Secure Communities and 287(g) contract with the federal government.
"Critics of immigration enforcement programs like Secure Communities often say that when the lines between local law enforcement and immigration enforcement are blurred, community members stop being able to trust the police and fear coming forward to serve as witnesses or to report crime," said Colorlines.com's immigration reporter Julianne Hing. "The risk of deportation is just too high. What we're seeing now is illustrative of exactly that critique."
"Many of the parents with information about the case are afraid there may be negative consequences (deportation). Unfortunately, their fear is not unfounded, we have seen how people have been arrested and deported for selling ice cream on the streets," Angelica Salas, executive director of the Human Rights Coalition of Los Angeles (CHIRLA) told La Opinion.
Sgt. Dan Scott said this afternoon that the department is trying to put together a formal message, but that for now, the word to Miramonte families is not to worry about being turned in to immigration authorities for speaking up.
"They have Sheriff Lee Baca's word that there will not be prosecution or even inquiries into anybody's legal status in this country," Scott said. "We are seeking victims, witnesses, or anybody that has information about this case to please come forward to the Sheriff's Special Victims Unit, which is our normal process. We will not ask their legal status. The Sheriff specifically wants that message out: We will not be inquiring as to their legal status."
"As a result of stepped up immigration enforcement programs like Secure Communities, undocumented immigrants, even those who have absolutely no criminal record, regularly get deported. It's also further complicated because Sheriff Baca actually defended his county's use of the immigration enforcement program Secure Communities just last year in an L.A. Times op-ed," Hing explained.
On press conference Thursday lawyer Greg Owen announced he's filed civil lawsuits on behalf of three students that the L.A. County sheriff's investigators have yet to interview because the parents are undocumented and fear deportation, KPCC's Adolfo Guzman-Lopez reported.
One of the alleged victims' father sat next to Owen at the conference wearing a black hooded sweatshirt and sunglasses to disguise his identity.
The father said he had a framed photo of his daughter in his living room given to him by Berndt that showed her holding a cookie between her lips with a white substance. The Sheriff's office is now reporting those cookies were laced with semen.
He says he hasn't been able to sleep and has gone to the emergency room twice after bouts of anxiety and an accelerated heart rate since he found out about the alleged acts against his daughter.
The district has responded by closing the school for two days and replacing every single teacher, administrator and support staff member out of Miramonte Elementary. And it all couldn't of come at a worse time because the California standardized exams are coming up in two weeks.