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California investigators find 200 more photos in case of teacher accused of abuse
LOS ANGELES (AP) ' Investigators said Wednesday they have found 200 additional photos they believe were taken by a former teacher who is accused of committing lewd acts on 23 children over a five-year period.
The photos were found late last week at the same pharmacy where a photo lab technician had first noticed odd pictures that led to Mark Berndt's arrest, said sheriff's Lt. Carlos Marquez. The recent discovery brings the total number of photos to roughly 600.
Many of the photos involve children already identified by authorities, but there may be other potential victims, Marquez said.
Berndt has been charged with lewd acts on children between 2005 and 2010. Some of the photos show children ages 6 to 10 blindfolded, their mouths taped and being fed a milky, white liquid authorities believe was semen. The new batch of photos depicts similar poses, Marquez said.
Berndt taught at Miramonte Elementary School, where the entire staff was replaced this week amid outrage from parents.
The furor led two parents to come forward Thursday to complain that teacher Martin Springer, who had worked at the school for 26 years, fondled two second-grade girls in his classroom.
Springer, 49, pleaded not guilty Tuesday after he was charged with committing lewd acts upon one girl in 2009. Bail was set at $300,000.
Police have set forth no connection between the cases, but parents' confidence has been badly shaken.
Meanwhile, the mother of an 11-year-old boy told the Los Angeles Times that a teacher's aide, a woman the mother said appeared to be in her 50s, sent at least three letters to her son in 2009, including one that said: "When you get close to me, even if you give me the chills, I like that. Don't tell nobody about this!"
The aide signed one letter "Sad Girl" because she was being transferred to another school, the mother alleged.
The mother said she went to the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, which directed her to the school. During a meeting that included the mother, her son, his teacher and an assistant principal, the teacher's aide acknowledged writing letters and said she had a grandmotherly affection for the boy.
The aide no longer works for the school system, district spokeswoman Gayle Pollard-Terry said.
All 120 staff members at Miramonte will be replaced as of Thursday after a two-day school shutdown as part of Los Angeles Unified School District's investigation into last week's arrests.
Some parents applauded the decision to replace the entire staff, but others have circulated a petition calling for the staff to be reinstated.
"It's the most severe action I've seen taken by a school district," said Terri Miller, president of Stop Educator Sexual Abuse, Misconduct and Exploitation, an advocacy organization based in Las Vegas.
Parents on Monday night handed Superintendent John Deasy a petition with 400 signatures calling for open doors and allowing parents to observe classrooms and act as hall monitors. But they did not want good teachers removed, said Martha Escutia, a lawyer and former state senator who is helping parents to organize a group named Mothers of Miramonte.
"This is not being very well received," Escutia said. "Some kids have established close relationships with their teachers."
Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said he supported Deasy's decision to replace the staff.
"I think we need to do everything we can to make sure these kids, these students and their families, get the help that they need and to get to the bottom of how this happened," he said.
The school board on Tuesday voted unanimously to fire Springer. He has 30 days to file an appeal.
Berndt was fired in January 2011 after the district learned of a Sheriff's Department probe. He appealed and resigned six months later.
It's unclear whether any staffers will return to Miramonte. On Tuesday, they were packing up their classroom belongings to head to a nearby newly constructed school that is unoccupied, district spokesman Tom Waldman said. Deasy said the staff will be there at least until August while each person is thoroughly interviewed.
School sex abuse expert Mary Jo McGrath, an attorney who has conducted some 350 abuse investigations, said the district's investigation, which will be handled by an independent commission led by retired California Supreme Court Chief Justice Carlos Moreno, could uncover more cases.
"It's not a witch hunt, it's just that someone is really looking," she said. "Cases start unpeeling like an onion. It's always the same pattern."
Berndt, who worked at the school for 32 years, remains jailed on $23 million bail and could face life in prison if convicted.
Investigators said they know of no connection between the men. Berndt and Springer took their classes on at least two joint field trips in the past decade, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Associated Press writer Robert Jablon contributed to this report.