By Richard Winton and Howard Blume (LA Times)
May 16, 2016
The Los Angeles school district will pay $88 million to settle sexual abuse cases at two elementary schools where complaints about the teachers behavior had surfaced long before their arrest, officials confirmed Monday.
The settlement with 30 children and their families, finalized over the weekend, is the second largest in district history, and brings a dark chapter to an apparent close.
The cases at De La Torre Elementary in Wilmington and Telfair Avenue Elementary in Pacoima, emerged in the aftermath of better-known sexual misconduct at Miramonte Elementary, south of downtown. Altogether, a spate of prosecutions and lawsuits led to huge settlements and spurred the district to announce a raft of reforms at the nation's second-largest school system.
"We’re glad that we’re able to resolve both of these cases so we can avoid potentially painful litigation and put these cases behind us," said Gregory McNair, a senior attorney with L.A. Unified. "We’re turning a corner here because we’ve resolved the last two very large cases that were involving the district."
The abuse scandals prompted the school system to better document and retain allegations against employees.
The district also focused on better training on recognizing and reporting abuse and set up a special investigations unit.
Attorneys representing the students said the change was long overdue and they remain concerned.
Plaintiffs' attorney John Manly likened the district's handling of these cases to the Catholic Church's failure to halt abuse by priests.
“We feel this is an ongoing problem in L.A. Unified and we hope this amount of money will promote a change of heart and change of attitude when it comes to victims," said Manly, who represents many of the students and families.
The De La Torre litigation encompassed 18 children and 19 of their parents (who sued separately). The Telfair settlement involved 12 minors. The agreement provides for a process to distribute the money fairly, but the average payout will be about about $3 million per family, including sums that two of the Telfair students won through a jury verdict last year.
The two schools are at opposite ends of the sprawling school system — Telfair in the north, De La Torre in the south. And Miramonte was miles from both. All three schools served predominantly low-income communities and involved veteran teachers who had been relatively popular, but whose conduct had raised questions in the past.
Miramonte teacher Mark Berndt attracted the most media attention after his 2012 arrest because of the bizarre forms of abuse into which he lured dozens of students. The payouts eventually totaled $175 million. Berndt is serving a 25-year sentence for committing lewd acts.
The district's reputation continued to be battered as details emerged about other accused predators. At the time, Telfair teacher Paul Chapel III already was facing sex abuse charges.
L.A. Unified had no record that it ever conducted an internal investigation about him despite his dismissal from a previous job at a private school and his later trial — Chapel was not convicted — on allegations that he abused a boy. District officials said that the earlier incidents did not involve conduct at an L.A. Unified school, which may have limited their attention to the matter at the time.
But court documents allege that there also were concerns at his L.A. Unified workplace. Teachers at his first district school, Andasol Elementary in Northridge, warned that Chapel was placing children in his lap, attempting to take them on unauthorized field trips and closing his classroom door with students inside during lunch and recess.
In March 2011, a parent complained to an administrator that Chapel would kiss boys and girls in class. Several children confirmed the allegations, but even at that point, Chapel remained in the classroom for six more weeks, according to court documents.
Questions about Chapel's subsequent quiet removal led to a specific change in district policy: Families are now supposed to be notified when an investigation of a teacher involves alleged sexual misconduct.
In all, Chapel sexually abused a dozen students over a decade, including acts such as kissing boys on their genitals. He is serving a 25-year sentence after a no-contest plea.
Robert Pimentel's case also involves a long chain of accusations that led to little or no action, according to court documents filed by the plaintiffs.
Former district Principal Irene Hinojosa fielded complaints about Pimentel's aggressive affection for children as early as 2002, when she documented a conference with Pimentel about touching and slapping young girls' buttocks and touching their calves.
The teacher admitted the conduct, according to the document, with the excuse that he was on medication, which increased his sex hormones. Three years later, Hinojosa received a search warrant 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.
In 2009, senior administrators learned of accusations against Pimentel from a report by social worker Holly Priebe-Diaz, who talked to a group of about 40 parents demonstrating against the principal.
An internal district memo, marked confidential, said soon after that “the district guidelines regarding reporting cases of child endangerment may not have been followed.”
Allegations about Pimentel filtered up through administrators Valerie Moses and Mike Romero — all the way to senior regional administrator Linda Del Cueto. The complaints, although not lurid, provided more than enough grounds to launch a full investigation, plaintiff attorneys said.
About a dozen students complained about sexual misconduct by Pimentel that occurred after the 2009 allegations. In abuse cases, liability is not established by the acts themselves, but by whether a school system could have or should have known about a potential problem, according to experts.
The district administrators accused of inaction repeatedly denied wrongdoing or declined to comment.
Del Cueto, reached at the district on Monday, said that at this point she is unwilling to discuss the case.
Then-Supt. John Deasy removed Hinojosa as principal and she subsequently left the district for another job, according to state records.
Deasy suspended the three other administrators, along with current Principal David Kooper. Kooper was, for a time, an aide to school board member Richard Vladovic, who represents that area. Investigators apparently found nothing incriminating against either Vladovic or Kooper. Deasy demoted Romero and Del Cueto.
Deasy's successor, Ramon Cortines, restored them to more senior positions. Moses has retired, according to district records.
"The LAUSD is more interested in protecting teachers and administrators than in protecting the children within the LAUSD," said plaintiffs' attorney Luis Carrillo.
Pimentel pleaded no contest to sexually assaulting four girls, including a relative, and was sentenced to 12 years in prison.