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In Teachers We Trust

Ethical and Professional Responsibilities of Teachers to Students: A blog by Ali Brozek, student, California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo

I am delighted to post a blog written by Ali Brozek, one of my ethics students, as part of an end-of-term assignment. My students are required to select a topic and analyze the issues from an ethical perspective. Ali’s blog is thought-provoking and the analysis well done. I, myself, had blogged about some of these issues last month.

In fourth grade, children are supposed to study fractions and grammar; however, children should never be exposed to learning what it feels like to have a cockroach on their face. At Miramonte Elementary School, the children of Mark Berndt’s fourth grade class unfortunately discovered that feeling.  Sixty-one year old Mark Berndt had been teaching at Miramonte Elementary, part of the LA Unified School District, for thirty years and was known as a great educator.  Sadly, his actions in the class room did not match his reputation. 

From 2005 to 2010, Berndt had been harassing his students and playing perverse jokes on them.  These events included blindfolding children and putting cockroaches on their face, feeding students spoonfuls of his semen, as well as other disgusting acts.  Most recently, Mark Berndt took bondage-style photographs of his students participating in a “food tasting game” which eventually led to the discovery of this torment. 

A photo technician who developed the pictures Berndt had taken reported this information, Berndt was ousted and an investigation ensued.  Investigators used DNA from spoons uncovered in Berndt’s classroom to connect Berndt to victims as well as identifying the children in the photos.  Previously, some students in Berndt’s class had complained about being uncomfortable.  Marlene Trujillo, one of Berndt’s prior students, said “Berndt often moved his hands under his desk, near his lap, at the front of the classroom.”  Marlene also noted that there was a large jar of Vaseline on his desk at all times.  Despite the warning, counselors dismissed the then fourth grader’s complaints thinking the students were fabricating the stories. 

Berndt was arrested on January 30, 2012, on 23 felony charges of committing twenty-three lewd acts on children.  Currently, Berndt is being held in jail on $23 million bail, one million per lewd act against a child.  As for Miramonte Elementary teachers, all have been reassigned to different schools while the investigation continues.  There is the potential of a case against another Miramonte teacher, Martin Springer, for committing lewd acts against children.  Investigators are trying to prevent any more harm to children while the facts are resolved.

Clearly, Berndt never considered the effects his actions had on his students or other stakeholders.  Berndt’s pathetic actions not only brought harm to the children but also disgrace on the entire school. The major question is how could have it gone on for so long without any action taken to stop the abusive behavior?  To its credit, LA Unified responded immediately to the accusations and instantly removed the children from harm’s way.  They have done exactly what is required of them by the law while doing what is best for the children and teachers of the school. 

From an ethical perspective it is clear that the rights of the children were violated.  According to the Rights Theory, every person is entitled to particular rights and should never be used only as a means to an end -- in this case the self-gratification of Berndt. Rights Theory is motivated by a sense of obligation.  Someone’s right implies that someone else has an obligation.  Applying this to the children at Miramonte Elementary, they had a right to a peaceful and prosperous learning environment; therefore, Berndt had an obligation to provide his students with such an environment.  Also, the children have a right to learn from a teacher who is concerned with their well-being and will not harass them.  Berndt therefore had an obligation to be the best teacher he could be and keep his personal issues to himself.  Evidently, Berndt did not do so.

Many ethical dilemmas are presented in this situation.  Parents place great trust in the people educating their children and Mark Berndt completely abused this trust.  Parents need to have faith in educators that their precious children will be taught in a safe and healthy environment.   A parent should never have to protect their child from an educator.   Children deserve a proper education and to be motivated to be the best they can be so they might contribute to the betterment of society.  Without trustworthy teachers and a prosperous learning environment, children will never be able to succeed.

The most perplexing issue in this case is the extent to which Berndt got away with his actions.  How did he get away with so much harassment?  Most teachers in today’s school system are dedicated educators who help guide our youth; however, there is always bound to be a bad seed.  There must be safety measures and controls at schools to guarantee that teachers earn student trust. 

The Miramonte school seemingly performed their due diligence by making background checks on every teacher, but Berndt’s record was clean.  Background checks are not enough.  If a teacher is prone to certain behaviors more must be done to ferret out such actions. At a minimum this means talking to others who know the teacher personally to get a candid assessment of the character of the individual before that person is entrusted with the health and welfare of young children.

Educators and administrators are ethically required to candidly discuss a teacher’s performance with subsequent employers when the character of a teacher is in question. Former colleagues must ask themselves: Would I want this teacher to be teaching children at my school? The universality aspect of Rights Theory encourages a decision-maker to emphasize the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.”

Blog written by Ali Brozek and posted by Ethics Sage, aka Steven Mintz, on March 9, 2012