The Los Angeles Board of Education on Tuesday agreed to pay more than $25 million to settle lawsuits over alleged sexual misconduct. Some cases were related to well-known incidents of abuse at Telfair and De La Torre elementary schools, for which teachers went to jail. Others never led to convictions. The larger settlements are about $2 million per student.
Officials with L.A. Unified like to believe they’ve turned the page on the worst employee misconduct following a spate of high-profile cases, and they can cite a long list of new safeguards. But attorneys for the victims questioned the district’s commitment to reform.
“No one has a full account of how many children have been abused, how many cases they’ve settled,” said attorney John Manly, who represented some of the victims. “This board has made every effort to keep it secret. That is troubling. There is a culture at LAUSD that accepts this as a cost of doing business.”
L.A. Unified General Counsel David Holmquist defended the district’s intentions and response.
“There is nothing more important than the safety of our students,” Holmquist said. “While these settlements will not excuse the behavior of those who preyed upon these children, we are relieved that we could resolve these matters without putting the children through further litigation.”
Payments totaling $10 million will go to five former students at De La Torre Elementary in Wilmington and settlements totaling $8.4 million will go to four former Telfair students.
The district has already paid $88 million in settlements to 30 students and their families at the two schools. But even these amounts were dwarfed by more than $200 million in payouts related to the sexual misconduct of Miramonte Elementary teacher Mark Berndt, who also went to prison. L.A. Unified is in litigation with insurance companies over who must pay these costs.
The other settlements approved Tuesday involved alleged sexual misconduct at Vista Middle School in Panorama City, Leonis High School in Woodland Hills and El Sereno Elementary School in El Sereno.
The Telfair case involved former third-grade teacher Paul Chapel, who was hired by L.A. Unified in 1988 and kept on staff despite a 1997 arrest and criminal trial over the alleged sexual abuse of a neighbor’s son. That case resulted in a hung jury, and prosecutors chose not to retry him.
Several teachers at his first district school, Andasol Elementary in Northridge, and at Telfair had complained about his behavior, according to court documents. Teachers said Chapel placed children on his lap, closed his classroom door when he had students inside during lunch and recess, and tried to take them on unauthorized field trips.
In March 2011, a parent complained to the principal that Chapel would kiss boys and girls in class. The principal interviewed several children and confirmed the allegations but allowed Chapel to remain in the classroom for six more weeks until he was removed April 15, 2011.
Chapel received a 25-year prison term following his 2012 conviction for lewd acts with 13 children.
In 2015, a Los Angeles jury awarded two Telfair victims a total of $6 million.
The De La Torre case involved teacher Robert Pimentel, who pleaded no contest in 2014 to charges that he sexually abused four girls between 2002 and 2012. He was sentenced to 12 years in prison.
The Newport Beach Police Department investigated Pimentel for alleged sexual abuse against four victims between 2005 and 2007, but did not file charges because of a lack of evidence. Some of the eventual charges resulted from incidents at De La Torre Elementary that occurred after senior administrators at the district became aware of concerns raised by parents in 2009.
The district is not liable for a teacher’s actions “unless the district knew or had reason to know there was a pedophile,” Manly said.
The abuse scandals prompted the district to better document and retain allegations against employees, while also focusing on better training for recognizing and reporting abuse. Officials also set up a special investigations unit. Some teachers and union leaders even accused the district of going too far with a zero-tolerance policy that netted employees who turned out to be innocent.
“We remain vigilant in our efforts to protect students from harm,” Holmquist said.
Attorney Michael Carrillo, whose firm has battled the district over the last decade, said he gives L.A. Unified some credit for coming to terms, tempered by the concern that new cases continue to emerge periodically.
“I commend the district for recognizing that they were negligent and working to resolve these cases for the well-being of the children involved,” Carrillo said. “Changes can still be made to protect future children but for these kids, they can hopefully heal and work towards a brighter future ahead.”