El Monte school officials had warning signs that Richard Paul Daniels was having inappropriate interactions with the girls in his high school classes — he even had a conviction for it — but they failed to take decisive action that would have prevented him from having sex with a student in 2015.
Those mistakes and others caught up to the El Monte Union High School District on Thursday, when a Los Angeles jury ordered the school system to pay $2 million in damages.
The El Monte district serves about 9,000 high school students in the city of El Monte, located in the San Gabriel Valley, east of downtown L.A.
When Daniels was arrested in 2015, he already had a record of misconduct with students from 2004. He had pleaded guilty to one count of battery after originally being charged with one count of a lewd act on a child and three counts of misdemeanor child annoying or molestation.
The victims were students in his freshman class, said attorney Michael Carrillo, part of a team that pursued the lawsuit against the school system.
In April 2005, Daniels was sentenced to three years’ probation and 30 days of community service, according to the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office. The teacher also had to enroll in classes to help him overcome his sexual compulsions, take an HIV test and complete an AIDS education class, Carrillo said.
El Monte officials concluded that he could continue his teaching career, but they had to transfer him to another school because he had a restraining order related to the case ordering him to keep his distance from four alleged victims as well as from the campus itself, Carrillo said.
Daniels transferred from Mountain View High School to Arroyo High School, according to a trial brief. There, in 2013, Daniels began grooming another student for abuse, kissing and fondling her, according to court records, and in 2015 the relationship became sexual.
The girl’s mother discovered and reported what was going on after determining that Daniels was the person calling and sending a flood of texts to her daughter, Carrillo said.
Daniels, a Fontana man in his 50s, eventually pleaded no contest to a felony count of performing a lewd act on a minor. He was sentenced to three years in prison.
“We are very grateful the jury believed our client and recognized that school administrators failed miserably to prevent this predator from hurting students,” Carrillo said. “We hope this verdict is a wake-up call for the district that they need to do a better job of protecting kids.”
An attorney representing the district, Dana John McCune, made a brief statement when reached Friday.
“I offered $3.2 million before trial,” he said. “They wanted $7 million. I don’t necessarily disagree with the jury’s findings. You saw what the verdict was.”
McCune declined to answer further questions.
El Monte Supt. Edward Zuniga subsequently sent out a statement saying that the school system “places the highest priority on student safety and is deeply committed to fostering positive learning environments. We do not tolerate any behavior that compromises the security of our students.”
“As this civil complaint comes to a resolution,” he added. “We will continue to take all accusations of misconduct seriously and will work with the proper authorities to ensure our campuses and students remain safe.”
In total, the jury awarded $5 million in damages. The district’s share is $2 million based on a finding that a principal and assistant principal were 40% at fault for what happened.
In their arguments, attorneys for the victim contended that the school system had ample warning signs and evidence of misconduct before the 2004 case, additional ongoing issues after the first conviction and direct knowledge of improper interactions with the student whom Daniels maneuvered into a sexual relationship.
According to Carrillo and court documents, Daniels would frequently be alone with female students behind his locked classroom door, and he was widely known for embracing girls, rubbing their backs and touching them in other ways. He also was accused of driving the victim around in his car without appropriate permission.
School districts assert that in recent years they have tightened their policies for conduct and for reporting possible misconduct. But in 2004, when Daniels first came under scrutiny, school districts — including L.A. Unified — were dangerously inconsistent in how they handled allegations of sexual misconduct against employees. Many times, allegations were handled quickly and properly. But some incidents were not reported. At other times, too much responsibility was left with police and prosecutors.
If a school employee was not convicted of a crime that would mandate dismissal, that employee was sometimes returned to work without adequate internal review.