The Gov. George Deukmejian Courthouse in Downtown Long Beach. File photo.

A former Jordan High School teacher charged with sexually abusing his students testified in his own defense this week by insisting his accusers were either lying or misconstruing his genuine emotional support as inappropriate flirtations.

In his rape and sexual assault trial that began last week, prosecutors have cast 54-year-old Mark Santo as a predator who preyed on girls in his class who had difficult home lives.

As one example of how Santo allegedly fostered abusive relationships, Deputy District Attorney Elyse Rendon presented jurors with a message that Santo had sent saying he wanted to see one of the girls in a bikini.

The girl took a photograph of a mannequin in a bikini and posted it to her public story on social media, asking if she should buy it. Santo responded, saying she should buy the bikini, but only if he got to see her in it, followed by a heart-eyes emoji and the phrase “hubba, hubba.”

When Rendon asked if this was an appropriate message to send an underage girl, Santo said he simply was letting the girl know the bikini was “beautiful.” He said he thought he was supporting her at a time when there was a lot of body shaming going around.

“That’s the same thing I would’ve said to my daughter,” Santo said.

Santos is accused by prosecutors of inappropriately touching one of his students at Lindbergh Middle School during the 2012-2013 school year and fondling one of his daughter’s friends during a sleepover a few years later.

A third accuser was 18 at the time of the alleged abuse but had met Santo when she was her seventh-grade teacher. She testified that Santo forced her into performing oral sex on him while at his family home in 2018.

In his testimony, Santos denied ever sexually assaulting anybody, and admitted only to the occasional online flirting with other teachers and adults in his life—but never any students.

He described how during his 16-year career as a teacher, students trusted him because his classroom was known as a safe space on campus and for his ability to empathize with them.

“I felt they needed someone in their life to show support,” Santo said. “I wanted my students to be a success.”

But Rendon, the prosecutor, questioned Santo’s intentions with his accusers. She asked about several “inappropriate” messages he had sent them over social media.

On one occasion, one of his daughter’s underage friends posted a photo on social media sticking her tongue out. Santo responded to the photo by sending a picture of himself with his tongue out along with the message “don’t stick it out unless you’re planning on using it.”

Santo explained to prosecutors that he had meant nothing sexual by it and that it was an inside joke among friends.

Santo also testified that sexual contact with the 18-year-old former student was consensual. From the stand, Santo alleged she made the first move on him at his home and that he gave in because he was in a failing marriage.

The former student described the situation differently, accusing Santo of forcing oral sex on her and telling her “this is what I’ve been waiting for,” after assaulting her, prosecutors said.

Santo said the events of that day “ruined my life.”

Word apparently got out, and students began treating him differently, he said. Soon, he testified, he started receiving threats on social media.

That, according to Santo, caused him to come forward to the administration about the sexual encounter with his former student. He and the school district then negotiated an agreement that let him resign quietly.

Police eventually arrested Santo in 2020 after investigators gathered information from the three alleged victims.

He’s now facing two counts of assault with the intent to commit mayhem, rape, sodomy, or oral copulation; two counts of lewd or lascivious conduct with a child under 14 years old; one count of lewd or lascivious conduct with a child 14 or 15 years of age; and one count of forcible sexual penetration by means of force, violence, duress, menace, or fear of immediate and unlawful bodily injury.

Jurors were expected to begin deliberating in the case soon, with closing arguments scheduled for Friday afternoon.

Editor’s note: This story was updated to clarify Santo’s message to one of the girls he was accused of abusing.