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Ex-student sues elite Brentwood School after teacher is charged with sexually abusing him

Ex-student sues elite Brentwood School after teacher is charged with sexually abusing him
A former student has sued the elite Brentwood School, where a female teacher is charged with repeatedly having sex with the minor, alleging the other faculty failed to report it to authorities. (Anne Cusack / Los Angeles Times)

A former student sued the elite Brentwood School on Monday in the wake of a female teacher being charged with repeatedly having sex with the minor, alleging that other faculty members encouraged the unlawful behavior and failed to report it to authorities.

The lawsuit accuses the private school, whose students include the children of many of Hollywood’s elite and L.A.’s powerful, of acting negligently and allowing Aimee Palmitessa to abuse and batter the teenager sexually.

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The suit alleges that the student was abused in summer 2017 after one of the school’s counselors offered words of encouragement to the then-17-year-old, identified in the suit as only John Doe, to engage in an illegal relationship with the teacher.

The school allowed Palmitessa, a teacher with a reputation for inappropriate conduct with students, to groom the teen in 2016 before eventually subjecting him as an 11th-grader to repeated sexual acts on the campus, at an upscale hotel, and his and her homes last year, the lawsuit alleges.

Mike Riera, Brentwood’s head of school, said in a statement posted Monday on the school’s website that an internal investigation begun after Palmitessa’s August 2017 arrest resulted in the teacher’s departure. “It also led to enhanced communication of the school's clearly articulated policies about boundaries and behavior as well as additional faculty/staff training,” Riera said.

Riera said the school is assessing the lawsuit and that its “legal counsel will respond as appropriate.”

“Despite the litigation, we sympathize with the student and family for the pain this situation has caused them. We remain committed to all of our students and to respecting their privacy. We ask that you do the same,” he wrote.

Palmitessa, 46, was arrested and charged with multiple sex crimes after the boy told his family and revealed explicit messages, photos and videos, authorities said. A grand jury indicted Palmitessa on 12 felony counts of unlawful sex with a child, sodomy and other sexual abuse.

She has pleaded not guilty to the charges.

In May 2016, according to the suit, the teen was among a group of students disciplined by the school’s honor board for being on a yacht where some Brentwood School students were captured on video singing rap lyrics that include the N-word.

The school’s actions, the lawsuit said, effectively branded the shy honors student a racist and made him particularly vulnerable.

Palmitessa seized the opportunity to become his advocate before the honor board and “therefore seduced him,” the suit alleges.

In May 2017, as the teen crossed the senior quad, the teacher called out his name, grabbed his hand for 30 seconds in full sight of students and staff, the lawsuit says.

Confused, the boy reached out to a school counselor, Robert Jost, the suit claims. The boy confessed his love for an older woman he saw every day and under questioning admitted she was a teacher, the lawsuit alleges.

“Remarkably, Mr. Jost counseled John Doe by encouraging the relationship,” the suit alleges, claiming the counselor cited the example of French President Emmanuel Macron and his wife, Brigitte, who is 24 years his senior and his former French teacher.

“Mr. Jost’s advice indelibly changed the course of John Doe’s life” and encouraged him to become involved with the teacher, the suit says. Instead of reporting the activity, Jost instead advised Palmitessa to “keep her distance” from the boy, according to the suit.

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School officials did not respond to requests for comment Monday.

When Palmitessa was arrested last year, parents were told that school officials were “shocked and distressed,” and that the school — where tuition ran nearly $41,000 last year — has cooperated with Los Angeles police.

But the suit alleges that others on the staff who shared an office with Palmitessa “witnessed the evolution of the relationship” with the boy and that a female colleague advised her to “stay away” from the teen. Despite being required to report suspected sexual abuse under state law, none of them made a report to police, the suit says.

The attorneys for the now 18-year-old noted that the school’s core values include trust, respect, responsibility, honesty and caring.

“Brentwood School failed in every way to live up to their stated mission and core values concerning our student,” said Sean Walsh, speaking on behalf of the law firm Browne George Ross. “None of those stated principles was afforded to our student and we wonder how many others have had their trust violated.”

The teacher did little to hide her behavior, the suit claims.

Palmitessa took the teen to a concert in August last year, where other students saw them together; then they spent the next few days together, the suit claims. His father finally learned about the alleged abuse when he checked his son’s whereabouts via an iPhone app, the suit says, and saw he was not at football practice but at Palmitessa’s house in Hollywood. The boy, confronted by his father, admitted what had been happening and his family went to the police.

In recorded calls, the teacher begged him not to reveal their activities, threatened him and continued to talk about their sexual activity, according to the suit. Detectives would seize videos, audio recordings and texts in their investigation.

The suit seeks damages for sexual battery, fraud and negligence, claiming that the school failed in its oversight of Palmitessa. School officials, the suit added, were aware that another male student had photos of the teacher “nude or partially nude” on his phone and “bragged about sexual conduct with her.”

10:20 a.m., Aug. 7: This story has been updated with a statement from a school official.

This article was originally published at 7:45 p.m. Aug. 6

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