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L.A. Unified agrees to $5 million in settlements in molestation cases

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L.A. Unified agrees to pay $5 million to settle legal claims by two students who said they were molested
One alleged molestation victim at an L.A. school will get $3 million, a second will get $2 million

The Los Angeles Unified School District has agreed to pay $5 million to settle two legal claims from students who alleged they were molested by a former Telfair Elementary School teacher, a plaintiff's attorney said Wednesday.

The settlements, which still must be approved by a judge, would be the first related to the case of third-grade instructor Paul Chapel III, who pleaded no contest to 13 counts of lewd acts on a child in 2012 and was sentenced to 25 years in prison.

The molestations of seven girls and six boys occurred from September 2006 to April 2011. All the children were students at Telfair in Pacoima.

The settlement concludes nearly two years of litigation. The lawsuit was filed in July 2012, and there had been no serious talks of settlement until this week, said attorney Thomas Cifarelli, who represents several other students with claims against the district related to Chapel.

One plaintiff will receive $3 million, and the other will get $2 million, Cifarelli said. Both students were 8 years old at the time of the abuse; they are now 11.

"I think ultimately L.A. Unified recognized that we were prepared to prove that they were negligent in the hiring, the retention and the supervision of Chapel," Cifarelli said. "I think they realized that this case was not going to end well for them."

Cifarelli declined to specify how many other students he represents.

L.A. Unified general counsel David Holmquist said in a statement that when district officials learned of the allegations in 2011, they immediately informed law enforcement, removed Chapel from the school and eventually fired him.

"Unfortunately, plaintiffs suffered harm before the teacher's activities were uncovered," Holmquist said. "For this reason and in an effort to shield the young children from a long and emotional trial, we are finalizing settlements which we are confident will provide for the future health and educational needs of the students involved."

The Chapel case emerged publicly soon after L.A. Unified's largest abuse scandal. At Miramonte Elementary School, a third-grade teacher was charged with more than two dozen lewd acts; the district has paid $30 million in settlements and legal fees in that case.

In 2011, prosecutors charged Chapel with molesting four students. The district then waited months to tell parents about the third-grade teacher's arrest, doing so after two teachers at Miramonte were arrested and charged.

The district fired Chapel, and a month later prosecutors charged him with molesting nine additional students.

Court documents alleged that the school system ignored repeated complaints and allowed Chapel to return to work despite several red flags in his past. He had previously left a private school after allegations of inappropriate remarks during a sex education class and was tried but not convicted in an alleged 1997 molestation.

L.A. Unified has no record that it ever conducted an investigation of the 1997 incident. District officials have said that may have been because the incident occurred off campus.

According to L.A. Unified records, the day after Chapel was arrested in that case, the district alerted the state Commission on Teacher Credentialing, which suspended Chapel's credential. The school district then removed Chapel without pay from an elementary school in Northridge. The case went to trial, but a jury failed to reach a verdict because of the lack of physical evidence.

Prosecutors opted against retrying the case. L.A. Unified records indicate criminal charges were dismissed in August 1998, and the state Commission on Teacher Credentialing reinstated his credential. He returned to work — this time at Telfair.

The district also faces lawsuits from about 60 former students and about 40 parents related to the case of former Miramonte elementary teacher Mark Berndt.

He was accused of spoon-feeding his semen to blindfolded students as part of what he allegedly called a tasting game. He pleaded no contest in November to 23 counts of lewd conduct and received a 25-year sentence.

The first trial in the civil cases is scheduled for July.

stephen.ceasar@latimes.com
Twitter: @stephenceasar

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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