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L.A. Unified missed warning signs on accused teacher

The district has no record of whether it investigated earlier molestation allegations against Paul Chapel, who is charged with 16 counts of lewd acts and sexual abuse.

March 07, 2012|By Rick Rojas and Howard Blume, Los Angeles Times
  • Police arrested Telfair Elementary School teacher Paul Chapel, 50, in October on suspicion of molesting four young girls.
Police arrested Telfair Elementary School teacher Paul Chapel, 50, in… (Los Angeles Unified School…)

A teacher who faces molestation charges continued to work in Los Angeles schools despite a record that should have raised warning flags. He was tried, but not convicted, in an alleged molestation in 1997 and he previously left a job at a private school after alleged remarks made during a sex education class.

Paul Chapel, who most recently was a third-grade teacher at Telfair Elementary in Pacoima, has pleaded not guilty to 16 counts of lewd acts and continuous sexual abuse of three girls and one boy, each younger than 14, according to a September complaint filed by the Los Angeles County district attorney's office.

The alleged crimes occurred at school over a seven-month period ending last April, with students who were either in his class or in nearby classrooms, prosecutors said.

His case shares key similarities with that of former Miramonte Elementary teacher Mark Berndt, whose arrest triggered intense scrutiny over the school district's handling of sexual misconduct allegations against employees. Berndt allegedly spoon-fed his semen to blindfolded students as part of what he described as a "tasting game."

Berndt's personnel files contained no records of earlier, unrelated sexual misconduct allegations, which were never proved. Chapel's records are also incomplete, as was the school district's response after the 1997 allegations.

The Los Angeles Unified School District has no record that it ever conducted an internal investigation. District officials say the reason may be that the incident occurred off-campus. Without a criminal conviction, the district did not automatically examine matters that took place off school grounds — even, it turns out, potential child molestation and a related lawsuit.

"Inside the file, there is no evidence that an investigation was done," said Chief Human Resources Officer Vivian Ekchian. "Today an investigation would have occurred."

In this way, the scenario also resembles what happened with former Assistant Principal Steve Rooney. In that case, the district failed to follow up on a 2007 off-campus incident in which Rooney allegedly waved a gun at a student's father. A follow-up investigation would have revealed that Rooney had been having sex with the underage student.

Rooney returned to work and subsequently was convicted of molesting students at Edwin Markham Middle School. In response, the district revised its procedures dealing with alleged sexual misconduct.

In the 1997 incident, Chapel was accused of molesting an 8-year-old neighbor who was sleeping at his house with Chapel's son, who was about the same age. Chapel was accused of assaulting the boy as he slept; the boy broke free and ran home.

According to L.A. Unified records, the day after Chapel was arrested, the district alerted the state Commission on Teacher Credentialing and that agency suspended Chapel's credential. The school district suspended Chapel without pay from Andasol Avenue Elementary in Northridge, where he had worked about a decade.

The molestation case went to trial. A jury failed to reach a verdict because of the lack of physical evidence — it was Chapel's word against the child's, said an attorney who was involved in the case. Prosecutors opted not to retry the case.

L.A. Unified records indicate that criminal charges were dismissed Aug. 24, 1998. By Sept. 15, the state Commission on Teacher Credentialing had reinstated Chapel's credential and he returned to work — with back pay. He was sent to Telfair.

The commission has an independent obligation to rule on the fitness of teachers. L.A. Unified files contain a summary of the case, along with the outcome, from the commission, Ekchian said.

Until after his most recent arrest, L.A. Unified did not know about trouble in Chapel's career that preceded the 1997 arrest.

His first permanent teaching job was apparently as a biology teacher in the mid-1980s at Chaminade College Preparatory, a Catholic high school in West Hills. He got into trouble for allegedly making unnecessarily explicit and crude comments in a sex-education class.

His actions precipitated a lawsuit. In court papers, a psychologist wrote that one student felt demeaned and targeted. Another student dismissed Chapel as someone trying to show himself as hip and funny.

Chapel denied wronging, but Chaminade paid a settlement and he left the job.

In his application to L.A. Unified, Chapel said he had never received an unsatisfactory evaluation in a previous teaching position. He also listed the Chaminade principal as a reference.

L.A. Unified has no record of whether references were contacted, but it would have been the district's policy to do so, Ekchian said.

At Telfair, a former principal recalled a 2001 incident that gave her pause. In an interview, Stannis Steinbeck said she learned that Chapel was planning to take students on an unauthorized trip to a mountain cabin. She blocked the excursion and said she also alerted her supervisors, but did not formally discipline Chapel.

Chapel, 50, is in custody on $2.2-million bail.

rick.rojas@latimes.com

howard.blume@latimes.com

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