The huge price tag for missing warnings of L.A. teachers abusing students: $300 million and counting

In a recent court hearing, one young man after another claimed that former Franklin High football coach Jaime Jimenez befriended them during summer practice before 9th grade, then sexually abused them.

But it’s not the allegations against Jimenez that are at the center of a lawsuit filed this month against the Los Angeles Unified School District. It’s about whether school officials once again missed — or ignored — warning signs about Jimenez that prolonged the alleged abuse. 

The nation's second-largest school system has been plagued in recent years by a series of cases in which officials missed indications of teacher misconduct, and in some instances, continued to employ teachers who were under a cloud, or ignored or overlooked direct complaints.

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The result is a trail of victimized students and massive payouts to victims and attorneys that have surpassed $300 million in just the last four years. 

The district paid $40 million related to abuse at Telfair Elementary School after plaintiffs claimed the district overlooked earlier molestation allegations made against a teacher. The settlement was $58 million in the case of a George De La Torre Elementary School teacher, who faced numerous accusations of touching students that the district ignored. The biggest payout -- $200 million -- came after revelations that the district knew of complaints dating back to 1983 about a Miramonte Elementary School teacher accused of abusing numerous students in his classroom.

"Districts are not liable for criminal acts," said attorney Mary Jo McGrath, who has advised school districts and conducted investigations for them. "They are liable for what they did not do.”

LAUSD officials acknowledge past mistakes, but insist they have taken strong measures and now have some of the most extensive policies for preventing and uncovering abuse.

But a pattern has emerged: The district announces measures to make students safer, only to discover a new weakness in the system or to find that policies were not followed.

And predators keep surfacing.

Jimenez, 47, has pleaded not guilty to 32 felony counts for alleged wrongdoing stretching as far back as 2001.

Prosecutors say he actively pursued and abused boys from then until early 2015, when he was arrested. That was well after the district imposed a series of reforms in the wake of the Miramonte scandal.

Witnesses ranging in age from 16 to 27 testified in February that, over 14 years, Jimenez, a walk-on coach who assisted the full-time staff, gave them rides from practice, bought them gifts, regularly had students to his house to play computer games and to watch movies and football on TV. They frequently slept over; sometimes he plied them with alcohol, they said.

He allegedly ratcheted up sexual contact, moving from touching to masturbation and sodomy. A fixture in the Franklin community, Jimenez knew some of his alleged victims when they were in elementary school; one testified that the abuse began when he was 9.

The lawyer for some of the victims said it's hard to believe officials at the school didn't suspect something was going on with one of his clients. 

"Teachers and administrators would see him coming and going in (Jimenez’s) car and they know that is against policy,” attorney Vince Finaldi said.

That theme, of missing warning signs, or of failing to take seriously when a parent or student complained about discomfort with a teacher, has surfaced repeatedly in recent years.

Complaints against former teacher De La Torre teacher Robert Pimentel spanned a decade.

His supervisor, former district Principal Irene Hinojosa, fielded concerns about Pimentel touching students in 2002, when she documented a conference with the teacher about touching and slapping girls' buttocks and touching their calves. The teacher admitted the conduct, with the excuse that he was on medication, which increased his sex hormones, according to the documents.

Three years later, Hinojosa received a search warrant from the Newport Beach police requesting “Mr. Pimentel’s employment and personnel files” because of an investigation into Pimentel's alleged abuse of a minor who was related to him. 

It's not clear whether these early reports rose above Hinojosa, for whom Pimentel worked at two campuses.

In 2009, senior administrators learned of allegations through a report from social worker Holly Priebe-Diaz, who had talked to parents demonstrating against Hinojosa. Their concerns included Pimentel, who, the parents told her, "has been known to touch female students inappropriately...he caresses the girls.” One parent described his rubbing a girl’s back and “stroking her bra strap.” 

Thirteen of the damage claims concerned actions Pimentel took after Priebe-Diaz's 2009 report and after the district imposed new internal rules designed to better detect abusive teachers.

Plaintiff attorneys said the district should have acted much sooner against Pimentel.

“They put policies in place. They say they are reforming and then it turns out administrators ignored all the reports,” said attorney John Manly, who has represented some of the abuse victims.

Pimentel was eventually convicted of child abuse and sentenced to 12 years in state prison.

Los Angeles is far from the only school system to grapple with allegations of molestation by teachers. Just last month, a jury ordered the Pomona Unified School District to pay $8 million to a former student who was molested repeatedly by a teacher, including once during a Disneyland visit.

But L.A. Unified's sheer size, and the outrageous nature of several high-profile cases, has kept the issue front and center for several years.

The district's most expensive abuse case involves Mark Berndt, a former teacher at Miramonte Elementary School south of downtown L.A. The district has spent $200 million on claims made by students, and more cases are outstanding.

The size of settlements are also creeping upward. Those first Miramonte claims cost the district about $500,000 each in 2013. Later, similar cases crossed the million-dollar mark. Last week's payouts in the Pimentel case averaged about $3 million per student. The district last week also resolved suits related to former Telfair Elementary teacher Paul Chapel for about $30 million, bringing the total payouts in that case to nearly $40 million.

The largest payment to one victim was $6.9 million in 2012 to a boy repeatedly sexually abused by former Queen Anne Place Elementary teacher Forrest Stobbe.

"Because of these settlements, the injury caused by these criminals truly is an injury to all," said school board President Steve Zimmer. "But I’m not going to say the settlements are too much. There is no amount of money that can undo what was done. The No. 1 concern is the healing of children who were injured under our watch. The second is the activity of a tiny, tiny fraction of employees who were criminals masquerading as teachers." 

District officials say every case is unique and that the circumstances determine the dollars, but the district's accumulated reputation and record may work against it — attorneys for victims routinely cite the district's past mistakes in court filings.

Other potentially costly cases are working their way through the legal pipeline, including that of Jimenez and former Franklin drama teacher Peter Gomez, who was convicted of sexually abusing two boys. Both victims sued the district, with one case settled and another settlement pending, according to court records.

Other active claims relate to former San Pedro High substitute science teacher Michelle Yeh, who last year pleaded no contest to unlawful sex and child molestation involving three boys.

Prosecutors declined to charge former El Sereno Elementary School teacher Armando Gonzalez, but at least three former students have sued the district, alleging he abused them between 2008 and 2010.

School officials said that many of the biggest settlements in recent years have come from allegations of abuse that occurred some time ago. They believe some of the reforms are showing results.

"These settlements involved cases that happened many years ago," general counsel David Holmquist said. "This is in our history and we’ve taken steps to correct the problems going forward. Students are much safer today than a decade ago.”

Officials cite updated, annual training for parents, students and employees, an increased police presence on campuses and a special investigations team.

The district credits this team with recently unearthing alleged abuse from at least 10 years ago, which led to the arrest last week of Asst. Principal William Webb, a case that already has launched another lawsuit.

"We welcome new ideas," Holmquist said. "If there were a reliable psychological test to screen new hires, we’d do that. If somebody has a good idea, bring it on."

In a recent deposition, an L.A. Unified manager testified that, over a seven-month period, the district pulled 40 employees from schools because of sexual misconduct allegations.

In 2014 and 2015, the district initiated the dismissal of teachers in 28 cases that involved alleged inappropriate physical conduct and 14 that involved alleged sexual contact with a minor. The vast majority resulted in the teacher's departure; a few are still in process.

Across the school system, about 160 employees currently are suspended for a wide variety of possible transgressions while investigations and due process rules play out. 

Statistics suggest that about 1% of teachers and other school employees across the country could be past, current or future abusers, said Terri Miller, president of Stop Educator Sexual Abuse Misconduct & Exploitation, which is based in Las Vegas.

L.A. Unified is far from alone in having mishandled cases, she said.

"It is a problem all over," Miller said.

L.A. teachers whose conduct led to sexual abuse payouts since 2012:

  • $200 million* -- Mark Berndt, Miramonte Elementary
  • $58 million -- Robert Pimentel, De La Torre Elementary
  • $40 million -- Paul Chapel, Telfair Elementary
  • $6.9 million -- Forrest Stobbe, Queen Anne Place Elementary
  • $320,000 -- Jason Leon, Portola Middle School 

*includes legal fees

Source: L.A. Unified School District; court documents

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richard.winton@latimes.com

Twitter: @LAcrimes

howard.blume@latimes.com

Twitter: @howardblume

 

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