Prestigious Cleveland High program has a dark legacy. LAUSD settles fourth sex abuse suit

Equipment and trucks are seen at a construction site.
A building under construction is seen at Cleveland Charter High School in Reseda in 2020.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

For decades, the prestigious humanities magnet program at Grover Cleveland Charter High School sent students to the nation’s best colleges, but it also fostered a culture of sexual abuse in which students were exploited by their teachers. That legacy is now costing the Los Angeles Unified School District millions of dollars.

The L.A. Unified school board approved a $7.9-million settlement Tuesday with a 40-year-old woman who said she was sexually abused by a teacher who worked on the Reseda campus. The suit is the fourth settled by the district in connection with teachers in Cleveland’s Core humanities program.

With this settlement, the district’s total payout this year climbs to $15.1 million, to four former Cleveland students who alleged they were groomed, manipulated and sexually abused between the mid-1990s and 2009.

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Tuesday’s settlement involved a woman who said that when she was a teenager, now-deceased teacher Chris Miller and his colleague Vivian Atkin manipulated her into a sexual relationship. The litigation alleges the pair, married to other people at the time, were involved in an extramarital affair and groomed the teen for a couple of years before revealing their relationship to her when she was in the 11th grade.


“Outrageously, the district’s lawyers argued, because the sex did not happen on campus, the district didn’t have a responsibility,” said attorney John Taylor, who represents the woman and four other former students in various lawsuits. “They ignored the grooming and manipulation that occurred on campus.”

Miller and his colleagues wanted to disrupt the status quo and cultivated contact beyond the classroom with students, blurring the traditional lines of behavior, according to the lawsuits.

Throughout her senior year in 2001, the woman alleged, she would often leave school early with one or both teachers. In January of that year, Miller began sexually abusing her at his home, she said. In May 2001, she alleged, while Atkin’s husband was out of town, Miller and the girl went to Atkin’s Brentwood apartment, and both teachers sexually abused the teen simultaneously and then forced her to watch Atkin engage in sexual relations with Miller.

According to court records, while denying she abused the girl, Atkin admitted in her deposition that Miller and the student came to her house in May 2001 while her husband was away so that they could have a “healing ceremony” due to her having had a mastectomy. Atkin’s version of the events states, “Candles and incense were lit and the girl painted Atkin’s bare chest.”

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David Ring and Taylor, attorneys for previous plaintiffs against the school, now in their 30s and 40s, say the Core program at the Reseda school campus had a long history of abuse by its teachers. They maintain that the district’s negligence allowed teachers to groom students so they could manipulate, exploit and abuse them and leave them with a legacy of post-traumatic stress.

The teachers named in the four suits settled were Atkin, Miller, Richard Coleman and Brett Shufelt, all of whom were part of the humanities magnet program. For more than 40 years, the nationally acclaimed program has produced graduates who have gone on to prestigious universities. None of the teachers named in the lawsuits are working in L.A. now.


According to a brief prepared for trial, the school had received numerous complaints, including from a former student who is now a Superior Court judge, who told an assistant principal in the early 1990s that Miller behaved inappropriately with female students. Court documents stated that, in the mid-1990s, Miller pulled his pants down, exposing his underwear to his class, and also unzipped his pants in front of a student. Both incidents were reported to Cleveland’s administration.

In the 1994-95 school year, a student’s mother found inappropriate letters from Miller to her daughter and complained directly to the same assistant principal, court records show. At the end of the 1997-98 school year, another student’s mother complained directly to the then-principal of Cleveland High School about the teacher propositioning a female student.

According to the litigation, the abuse was rooted in the 1980s and began with another teacher who quit the school amid concerns about his behavior, but administrators “turned a blind eye to blatantly inappropriate behavior.”

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In another of the lawsuits, a woman alleged Miller, from 1994 to 1996, had a sexual relationship with her and coerced her into not reporting him. In April, that lawsuit was settled for $1.95 million, according to court records.

Another woman who attended the school from 1992 to 1996 said that, as a student, she was manipulated into a sexual relationship with teacher Coleman. In that case, the former student alleged Miller asked her if she was keeping Coleman “happy and smiling.” Los Angeles Unified settled the suit for $3 million in April.

The most recent allegation involved teacher Shufelt, who is accused of abusing a student in 2008 and 2009. The suit that resulted was settled in April for $2.25 million.

One lawsuit remains unresolved. That victim was abused by teacher Bill Paden in 2006. He was arrested in 2008 and, the following year, convicted of misdemeanor statutory rape. According to the lawsuit, the same teenager was also sexually abused by Coleman in her senior year in the spring of 2007.