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Complaint about accused ex-teacher made years ago

A Los Angeles public school teacher accused of engaging in lewd acts with students, allegedly had questions raised about his behavior more than 20 years ago. KNBC's Robert Kovacik reports.

LOS ANGELES -- A longtime Los Angeles teacher accused of bizarre acts of lewd conduct and taking photographs of children -- some blindfolded in a classroom with tape over their mouths -- was investigated in 1994 for allegedly trying to fondle a 10-year-old girl, according to authorities.

The alleged act occurred in September 1993, but was not reported to officials at Miramonte Elementary School until the following January 1994, Lt. Carlos Marquez said. The girl claimed the former teacher, 61-year-old Mark Berndt, reached toward her genitals during class, but she pushed away his hands, according to the sheriff's department.

The school notified the sheriff's department, which opened an investigation. Charges were not filed in that case.

The school district has launched its own investigation into the current allegations against Berndt.

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Berndt, who worked at Miramonte for more than 30 years, is jailed on $23 million bond. He is accused of felony molestation involving 23 children, ages 6 to 10, between 2005 and 2010.

He was arrested earlier this week after authorities were notified by a film processing technician of 40 photographs that depicted blindfolded children in a classroom with tape over their mouths. Some images showed the former teacher with his arm around the children or hand over their mouths, according to investigators.

California State Penal Code requires film processors to report suspected child abuse.

About 100 similar photos were found at Berndt's home, according to the sheriff's department. About 250 additional photos were recovered by Sheriff's Special Victims Bureau detectives from the film processing business.

'Never talked about again'
Meanwhile, two women who said they were former students of Berndt told the Los Angeles Times that complaints were made about Berndt's odd behavior as far back as 1990.

Marlene Trujillo, a 30-year-old paralegal, said she and two other fourth-grade classmates spoke with a school counselor about Berndt. They told the counselor he often moved his hands under his desk, near his lap, at the front of the classroom. She and other students also had seen a jar of Vaseline in one of his desk compartments.

“I didn’t say much during the meeting,” Trujillo told the Los Angeles Times. Finally, the counselor “just told us it’s not very good to make stories up. She said it was our imagination. It was never talked about again.”

Trujillo's classmate, Nadine Martinez Rodriguez, said she also noticed Berndt's behavior. Martinez said she told her mother about it at the time but that her mother didn't take it seriously enough to report to school officials, according to the Times.

School officials tried to determine how the alleged behavior went on unsuspected for so long.

"How do I make sense out of the fact that this took place over a number of years and no one seemed to know about that?" Los Angeles Unified School District Supt. John Deasy told the Times. "I'm definitely trying to understand how someone could not have known."

Using a cheap camera, Berndt is suspected of snapping nearly 400 photographs of Miramonte students, some with a giant Madagascar cockroach from a classroom terrarium on their faces.

Others were blindfolded or had clear tape over their mouths, and some were shown with a spoonful of milky liquid placed near their lips, sheriff's Sgt. Dan Scott said.

The photo sessions were treated as a game and some children were given sperm-laced cookies to eat as treats, Scott said. Berndt didn't sell or share the photographs but did give copies to some children, Scott said.

"It was like a souvenir," Scott said.

NBCLosAngeles.com's Jonathan Lloyd and Jess Gary contributed to this report, as did The Associated Press and msnbc.com's Sevil Omer.

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