PACOIMA, CALIFORNIA – A former Telfair Elementary teacher pleaded no contest Monday to molesting 13 students at the Pacoima school and faces 25 years to life in prison, the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office said.
As a preliminary hearing was to begin for Paul Chapel III, he pleaded no contest to 13 counts of lewd acts on a child, said Deputy Dist. Atty. Elena Abramson.
“They were all students at Telfair, aged 8 and 9…. Some of them were students in his class and others he met outside the classroom in breaks or after school,” Abramson said. The molestations of seven females and six males occurred from September 2006 to April 2011.
Prosecutors last fall charged Chapel, 51, with molesting four students. Los Angeles Unified school officials waited until February to tell parents about the third-grade teacher’s arrest, however, doing so after two teachers at Miramonte Elementary School accused of molestation were arrested and reporters questioned the district about other teachers removed for similar accusations.
The school district fired Chapel in March. In May prosecutors charged him with molesting nine additional students. Some of the victims were in San Fernando Superior Court on Monday, prepared to testify.
Lawsuits filed by two of the victims against the school district say Chapel kissed the children and fondled their genitals.
Court documents alleged that the district ignored repeated complaints about Chapel and allowed him to return to work despite several red flags in his history. He had previously left a private school after allegedly making inappropriate remarks during a sex education class. He was tried but not convicted in a 1997 alleged molestation.
His case is similar to that of former Miramonte Elementary teacher Mark Berndt, whose arrest triggered intense scrutiny of the school district’s handling of sexual misconduct allegations against employees.
Berndt’s personnel files contained no records of earlier, unrelated sexual misconduct allegations, which were never proven. Chapel’s records also are incomplete. L.A. Unified has no record that it ever conducted an investigation of the 1997 incident.
District officials said the reason may be that it occurred off-campus. Without a criminal conviction, the district did not automatically examine matters that took place off school grounds. In that incident, Chapel was accused of molesting an 8-year-old neighbor sleeping at his house with Chapel’s son, who was about the same age. The victim woke up, broke free and ran home.
According to L.A. Unified records, the day after Chapel was arrested in that case, the district alerted the state Commission on Teacher Credentialing, which suspended Chapel’s credential. The school district suspended Chapel without pay from Andasol Avenue Elementary in Northridge, where he had worked for about a decade.
The molestation case went to trial, but 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 involved in the case.
Prosecutors opted against retrying the case. L.A. Unified records indicate criminal charges were dismissed in August 1998 and the state Commission on Teacher Credentialing reinstated his credential and he returned to work — with back pay — at Telfair.