An unusual case in the Los Angeles area of child abuse involving photographs has started to make national headlines. According to a story in the New York Times — “Photos Led to Arrest in Abuse of Pupils” by Ian Lovett and Adam Nagourney, datelined January 31, 2012 — ”The [Los Angeles County] sheriff’s office said the investigation began about a year ago when a film processor, complying with California law, turned over 40 photographs of children in a classroom, their mouths and eyes covered with tape.” (For more extensive coverage from ABC-TV LA, click here.)
Of course, assuming he’s proven guilty, I’m glad they caught grade-school teacher Mark Berndt, 61, of Torrance, CA, allegations of misconduct against whom go back at least to 1994. At the same time, I’m concerned that the publicity inevitably generated by this extremely bizarre and high-profile case will serve as confirmation of the premises and usefulness of the problematic California law with which the film processor complied, and similar laws and protocols in place across the U.S.
California is one of nearly a dozen states that require notification of the police if a photo technician sees any pictures he or she suspects depict child abuse. California’s Mandatory Child Abuse Reporting Act, adopted in 1980, mandates that such reports be made immediately to police and that a full written report, with copies of the photos, be turned over within 36 hours.
Other states haven’t enacted equivalent laws, but local, state, and federal authorities have put processing houses and photo labs on notice that their cooperation is expected and that they should err on the side of caution. The film processor in question was a CVS One-Hour Photo lab within a CVS pharmacy in Redondo Beach, CA.
Having written about alleged “kiddie porn” cases involving photography since the late 1960s, I’ve commented on a number of situations in which photo-processing houses have turned suspect material over to the police. This is the first case out of all those I’ve covered (and dozens more about which I’ve heard) in which information supplied by a processing house resulted in the arrest of what appears to be a genuine predator. Mostly what they’ve netted have been parents photographing their kids in the bathtub or swimming pool or at the beach or just running around the house with no clothes on, or creative photographers making pictures of their own children or the children of their friends. (Full disclosure: I’ve served as unofficial and unpaid advisor to several photographers who’ve gotten swept up in these nets.)
The resulting investigations and prosecutions have brought untold grief to both amateur and professional photographers and hundreds of families. It was as a direct result of the California Mandatory Child Abuse Reporting Act, for example, that the FBI notoriously persecuted noted photographer Jock Sturges for several years, starting in 1990, resulting in the Bureau’s eventual failure to indict him on any count and their dropping of all charges once a federal grand jury refused to indict Sturges.
In a letter to the Newell Colour Lab in San Francisco, Susan F. Schnitzer, an FBI supervisory special agent, stated, “The FBI simply requests that any processing lab that receives questionable material contact this office or their local law enforcement agency.” “Questionable material?” Talk about overly broad . . . A Newell employee subsequently notified the FBI that they had received “questionable photographs of juveniles,” and the persecution of Sturges commenced. (More full disclosure: I wrote the afterword for Sturges’s 1994 Aperture monograph, Radiant Identities.)
Given the difficulty of identifying child molesters and catching them in the act, I understand the impulse to accept any method that enables the authorities to locate such criminals and bring them to justice. With that said, it was exceedingly rare in the analog-photography era to have a certifiable pedophile submit photographic documentation of his or her crimes to a photo lab. The availability of digital cameras and printers today makes it even more unlikely that such a deviant would pass incriminating evidence through a processing house. Pedophiles and child abusers usually know they’re breaking the law, and take great pains to keep their activities secret. If Berndt is guilty of the charges against him, they should add hubris to the list thereof.
Which leads me to ask how Berndt managed, at least once in his 30-year career as a third-grade teacher at Miramonte Elementary School in South Los Angeles, to allegedly do the following:
• blindfold and tape the mouths of three dozen children in his classes;
• hold his hands over their mouths;
• feed them spoonfuls of sugar mixed with his semen, and cookies with his semen mixed into the icing;
• set 4-inch-long Madagascar hissing cockroaches crawling on their faces;
• and make some 240 photographs of all these deeds, prints of some of which he apparently distributed to the students.
What kind of grade school has such minimal oversight of classroom activities that a teacher — especially one previously accused of attempting to fondle a female student — could create such complex and grotesque scenarios with his pupils, without fear of getting caught? I’m not surprised that his alleged victims, between the ages of 7 and 10, didn’t disclose what he reportedly told them were aspects of a secret game. We can’t fault the children. But I’ve never known a school in which teachers and their classrooms so lacked supervision that such elaborate goings-on could pass unnoticed. Had the school authorities exercised proper oversight of their staffer Berndt, and given their students some now-standard basic instruction in distinguishing between correct and incorrect adult/teacher behavior (including inappropriate touching), the CVS photo processor wouldn’t have been needed as the criminal justice system’s last line of defense against child abuse.
As I write this, a female teacher there has been accused of complicity with Berndt for serving as his procuress. Police have arrested a second Miramonte Elementary School teacher, Martin Springer, on suspicion of fondling two girls in his classroom. (Berndt and Springer knew each other and, at least once, conducted a joint field trip for their classes.) And Areceli Luisjuan, a semi-literate, 50-something former female teacher’s aide at Miramonte, has been accused of sending love letters to an 11-year-old boy. Officials from the Los Angeles Unified School District have now closed Miramonte Elementary School down and removed all of its teachers as part of their investigation.
Clearly what some have called a “culture of silence” prevailed at the Miramonte school, which seems to have functioned as a safe haven for child molesters and their enablers. Had its faculty and staff received instruction on spotting evidence of child abuse, and had the school’s administration properly supervised the staff and educated the students, it wouldn’t have taken the alertness of a CVS employee at a mall some 18 miles away to sound the alarm on one of the miscreants and open up this can of worms.
So while the California authorities, and the mass media, celebrate the arrest and prosecution of a dangerous predator, let’s beware of any tendency to use this case to justify a skein of laws that have resulted in far more persecutions of innocent people than the capture of guilty ones. Meanwhile, this caution for photographers, amateur and professional alike: Do not use a processing lab anywhere in the U.S. to develop or print any images of children (your own or anyone’s else’s) naked, partially clothed, or clothed but striking poses that anyone might construe as sexually provocative. You’ve been warned.
(Note, 2/14/12: The original version of this post, which drew on a number of published reports bearing on this story, indicated that the photo-processing operation at the Redondo Beach CVS store was operated or somehow connected to LifePics, and that a LifePics employee had an involvement in their disclosure to the authorities. A representative of that company has since informed me that while LifePics does now have a relationship with CVS, that relationship began only three months ago, postdates the production of Berndt’s prints. Moreover, that relationship involves only online ordering of prints; no LifePics employees work within the CVS chain of stores. Photocritic International apologizes for the error.)