Wednesday, May 25, 2016

A Los Angeles school district, like Central Valley, also settled an expensive lawsuit for teacher sexual misconduct

Posted By on Wed, May 25, 2016 at 10:58 AM

Bowdish Middle School is where Anthony Cucinotti allegedly raped Emily Keenan. - MIKE SALSBURY
  • Mike Salsbury
  • Bowdish Middle School is where Anthony Cucinotti allegedly raped Emily Keenan.

Last week, our cover story explored how school districts sometimes fail to protect kids from sexually abusive teachers. We focused mainly on the story of Emily Keenan, who reported she was raped by her 6th grade teacher, Anthony Cucinotti, five separate times during the 2008-09 school year. (Read the story here, if you haven't yet.)

The alleged rapes occurred after principals or administrators in Central Valley School District heard complaints about Cucinotti's misconduct for a period of over 16 years. Keenan recently was awarded $2.5 million dollars in a settlement with Central Valley, though the district didn't admit any liability. (Cucinotti has not been arrested or charged with any crimes.)

But it's not just districts in our region that sometimes fail to protect students from sexual abuse. Los Angeles Unified School District, the nation's second-largest school district, recently settled two lawsuits worth a total of $88 million with dozens of children and their families for cases involving sexual abuse at elementary schools. 

Both lawsuits — $58 million for students at one school and $30 million for students at the other — alleged that the school district failed to take complaints about the teachers' behavior seriously, an argument Keenan's lawyers also made in the lawsuit against Central Valley. 

Paul Chapel III, the teacher involved in one of the lawsuits, reportedly abused children over the course of a decade. Court documents, according to the Los Angeles Times, show that teachers had warned administrators that Chapel was placing children in his lap, attempting to take them on unauthorized field trips and closing his classroom door with students inside. Then, according to the Times, a parent complained to an administrator that Chapel would kiss boys and girls in class. Those allegations were confirmed by several students, but he remained in the classroom for six more weeks. 

Chapel is now serving a 25-year sentence after a no-contest plea. 

The other teacher was Robert Pimental. He would later plead no contest to sexually assaulting four girls before he was sentenced to 12 years in prison. But his case, too, involved a series of accusation that led to minimal action. From the Los Angeles Times story:

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. 

And those settlements came less than two years after the LAUSD agreed to pay nearly $140 million to families of students sexually abused by Mark Berndt, an elementary school teacher who was accused of taking bondage-style photos of more than two dozen students and feeding them afterward with spoons that contained semen. He is now serving a 25-year sentence. 

The Los Angeles school district made policy changes in response to scrutiny. Most notably, now when police are investigating any allegation of sexual misconduct of a teacher, principals must send out a notification letter to parents within a 72-hour window. 

Marla Nunberg, Central Valley School District spokeswoman, says she's not aware of any similar policy change since Cucinotti resigned in 2009 or since the ensuing lawsuit. She says if a teacher is accused of abusing or harassing a student, then that student's parents will be notified that day. But she says communication with parents is handled on a case-by-case basis. 

Spokane Public Schools has a policy of notifying parents of a targeted student not only of allegations, but also of the right to file a criminal complaint and sexual harassment complaint. 

Cucinotti, unlike the teachers in Los Angeles mentioned above, is not in prison. He moved to California after resigning from his teaching position, and Spokane County deputies never interviewed him after Keenan reported the rapes a few years after she says they happened.

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