By Gabriel Arizon and Diana Martinez
San Fernando Valley Sun/el Sol
In April and May of 2023, jurors will begin to hear the cases of four plaintiffs in separate lawsuits against LAUSD and teachers at a prestigious program at Grover Cleveland Charter High School, all of whom are accused of sexual abuse and “grooming” of their students.
What was at first one lawsuit filed early last year, has grown with four female plaintiffs, now in their 30s and 40s, who’ve recently filed non-consolidated lawsuits against four teachers and LAUSD for alleged sexual abuse during their time at the high school located in Reseda.
The lawsuits allege the teachers groomed them — building a relationship, trust and emotional connection with a minor over a period of time so they can eventually manipulate, exploit and abuse them.
These plaintiffs’ complaints span from 1992 to 2009. The plaintiffs, identified as Jane Does, filed in the Los Angeles Superior Courts lawsuits alleging sexual abuse of a minor, sexual harassment, intentional inflection of emotion distress and negligence. Unspecified damages are being sought.
This lawsuit opens the door to question how this abuse went unchecked and unreported for so many years and if the problem of sexual abuse in schools is more common and widespread than publicly known.
The teachers named in the suits are Richard Coleman, Chris Miller, Vivian Atkin and Brett Shufelt. All the teachers named worked in the school’s humanities magnet program — often referred to as “Core” — which was a nationally acclaimed program for more than 40 years that produced many graduates who went on to go to prestigious universities. The highly praised magnet program was sought after and highly regarded by educators, students and their families.
In an interview with the San Fernando Valley Sun/El Sol, attorney John Taylor — from law firm Taylor & Ring, which filed the suits — said none of the teachers currently work for LAUSD. Miller has already passed away and Coleman reportedly teaches somewhere in the eastern United States.
The first lawsuit was filed in February 2021 against Miller and Atkin. During a period between 1999 to 2001, the plaintiff alleges that the pair had groomed and manipulated her to sexually abuse her. Both Miller and Atkin were married to other people at the time and were in an extra-marital affair with each other.
Throughout her senior year, the plaintiff would often leave school early with one or both teachers. It culminated in the plaintiff meeting at Atkin’s house while her husband was away and a sexual encounter between the three ensued, the suit states.
The complaint alleges the school “turned a blind eye to blatantly inappropriate behavior,” and the school has a history of sexually abusing students.
After news initially broke about the suit, three other women who attended Cleveland High came forward with their own claims of sexual abuse.
One plaintiff also filed a complaint against Miller, alleging that between a period from 1994 to 1996, the teacher entered into a relationship with her and coerced her into not disclosing any details or reporting him. Atkin was again involved, dissuading the plaintiff from reporting their relationship.
Miller’s involvement in sexual abuse doesn’t end there. Another plaintiff who attended the school between 1992 to 1996 said she was manipulated into a sexual relationship with Coleman when she was a student.
Multiple teachers reportedly knew of the abuse, including Miller, who asked the plaintiff if she was keeping Coleman “happy and smiling.”
The fourth suit is against Shufelt, who previously was a student in the Cleveland magnet program. The plaintiff alleges that, between 2008 and 2009, she had entered a relationship with Shufelt. After a growing number of rumors about their relationship, Shufelt resigned and admitted to the relationship, saying that he “wanted to be with her.” The plaintiff also alleges retaliation from other teachers for Shufelt’s resignation.
Other teachers are accused of taking part in sexually abusing students. Between 2002 and 2003, art teacher Christopher Biron recruited and paid a 10th grade student to pose in his underwear for him.
Another teacher, Bill Paden was found to have been sexually abusing one of his students in 2008. When a friend of the student came forward about the abuse, the school quietly dismissed him. Paden was later convicted of misdemeanor statutory rape.
Taylor hopes that with these lawsuits, other victims will gain the courage to come forward.
“I think that’s why people come forward, and when they come forward, is deeply personal,” Taylor said. “It takes a tremendous amount of courage to do that because to some degree, you’re going to sacrifice your anonymity and also a certain degree of privacy to either family members, parents, siblings, spouse and kids.
“We hope that people who read this, maybe who are considering coming forward, would think I’m not alone because I think that there’s a great degree or deal of shame, or guilt or feeling somehow that, as a victim, you’re complicit because you’re not being physically forced to do something, you’ve been manipulated and groomed to do something and so they might feel that you have much more agency in what happened than you actually did.”
Reported in a previous news article, graduates of the magnet program were not surprised to hear of the allegations. They said that teacher-student “relationships” were an “open secret.”
When asked if students should be made aware of the signs for grooming and manipulation, Taylor said that it should be a teacher’s responsibility to be professional and follow the law, not for the student to take measures against possible grooming.
“I don’t want to flip the responsibility onto a student to accept that teachers are going to be abusive and not follow the law and not maintain the proper relationship between the student and teacher,” Taylor said. “These kids don’t stand a chance when they’re groomed by people manipulating them, manipulating their families, grooming the school because that’s what happens.
Taylor believes that from the school’s administrative personnel to students who observed these “psychological games” taking place could see students were being intimidated and bullied.
“You would like other teachers to have been aware of and acknowledge red flags about their fellow teachers and have done what they’re required to do, which would be to report them to Child Protective Services or to law enforcement. And instead, too many people at the school just accepted things as they were as somehow being ‘okay.’”
Among the tactics being used by teachers was to “normalize” the inappropriate relationship with the students — taking advantage of the program’s prestigious reputation by making the students feel “special” and “capable” for being there and that they deserved to be in this relationship with them.
“That’s the chilling thing, to have this school, this high profile school, be able to do what it did without any accountability,” Taylor said. “So these women’s goal is to hold them accountable for what happened to them while they were students.”
These four lawsuits are far from the only time that LAUSD has been sued over sexual abuse. In January, the district paid out a $14.7 million settlement to seven students sexually abused by a teacher in a Canoga Park elementary school.
In May 2020, the district paid a settlement of $2.1 million to a 17-year-old girl who reported she was sexually abused by her third-grade teacher in a Pacoima elementary school.
Just between 2012 and 2016, the district paid out more than $300 million in settlements over claims of sexual abuse.
Taylor said that these lawsuits hold the district, and by extension the school, accountable for their actions and to ensure that teachers today are conducting themselves properly.
“It’s the school’s responsibility to make sure the kids … go to school without being abused by a teacher,” said Taylor. “That’s for the purpose of, not only supervising the kid, [but] supervising the teacher so that they don’t end up having a sexually abusive or emotionally abusive situation.”
The suits are all headed for a jury trial. Taylor said he is confident that jurors will reach a verdict in their favor and see that the teachers failed in their responsibility.
“I think that anybody who hears these people testify will have no doubt that it occurred, and the supporting evidence from other students who were there at the same time period, as well as the other teachers who were there [or] who are still around and support the allegations,” said Taylor.
LAUSD has not issued a comment about the lawsuits indicating that they don’t comment on pending litigation.
The San Fernando Valley Sun/El Sol will continue its coverage of this story in upcoming issues..
I attended Cleveland High Scool Humanities Magnet from 1993 to 1996, and, though I’m a firm believer the principle of innocent until proven guilty, seeing Chris Miller and Richard Coleman named on this list doesn’t surprise me AT ALL. They were both VERY friendly with A LOT of female students. I never suspected there was any sex going on between them (if it was an “open secret,” nobody ever let ME in on it!), but looking back? Oh, yeah. Doesn’t surprise me at all.
And I took Chris Biron’s art history classes too. He was an ornery, abrasive guy, but clearly gay, and it doesn’t surprise me at all that he was paying boys to strip for him. And Bill Paden was my track team head coach! Hearing his story surprised me, but I admit, I didn’t know him that well, because I mostly trained under the assistant coach. I don’t know who Atkins and Shufelt are, they must have been after my time.
Regardless, I GUARANTEE you, I at least know the “Jane Doe” pressing charges against Miller, if not all four of them. I admit, I’m kind of pissed that I’m only learning about all of this now. I haven’t given a thought to my high school teachers or classmates probably since before the dawn of this century. Suffice it to say, I’ve never even considered attending a reunion. But now, for the first time in 20 years or more, I regret not keeping in touch with anybody from high school!
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