Natalie Weatherford, David Ring and John Taylor (L to R)
Everyone wants to feel special.
It’s innate. We want to hear we’re the smartest, or most insightful, or most beautiful. Never are we more susceptible to those feelings than as children – when we’re in school, anxiously grappling for a higher spot in the social and academic pecking order. Kids crave validation and love – which make them more impressionable to the authority figures they look up to. It’s all too easy for an adult in power to weaponize that hunger to be seen. To use that desire for specialness to manipulate and abuse.
No one knows that more than the team at Los Angeles-based Taylor & Ring. Dave Ring, co-founder of the firm, has been litigating plaintiffs’ sexual abuse cases for more than three decades. When he joined forces with John Taylor in 2002, they knew abuse cases were going to be a significant part of their firm. Time and again, the abuse the attorneys see takes place in schools.
The first sexual abuse case Ring tried back in the ‘90s was against a school district. At that time, sexual abuse trials were rare. “They all settled quickly, quietly,” Ring remembers. But, when the school district didn’t provide an adequate settlement, he and his then-partner made the bold decision to go to trial. The case ended in a $10M jury verdict for the victim, and Ring realized the positive influence a successful trial can have on a victim’s recovery. “It gave [our client] so much closure and confidence that he didn’t do anything wrong,” Ring says. “It changed his life.”
In the ensuing years, our culture has undergone a seismic shift; after the exposure of abusive priests in the Catholic Church and the rise of the #MeToo movement, more people understand that sexual abuse is pervasive, and that abuse is not the victim’s fault. We’ve instituted trainings for professionals, created mandatory reporting laws and fostered support networks for victims.
Yet, the abuse persists, so the attorneys at Taylor & Ring continue to fight. The firm, which now boasts nine lawyers, is recognized throughout California for both the volume of sexual abuse cases litigated and the depth of commitment to victims. With multiple landmark cases this year alone, the team has shown they’re not slowing down.
A STRING OF RECENT VICTORIES
When David Lamb applied to be a bus driver with the Lucia Mar School District, he hid a Peeping Tom conviction on his application. Caught in the lie when his criminal record came to light, he was taken out of consideration for the position. But, desperate for bus drivers, the district told him to simply apply again with the charge disclosed. He did, and was hired.
On Lamb’s route, there was a 9-year-old girl with disabilities who was often the only student on the bus. Lamb would pull off the side of the road to abuse her. He warned her not to tell anyone, but she bravely told her guardians regardless. The school promised to review the security footage on the bus but claimed they found nothing – even though the acts, in one instance, were plainly caught on camera.
“They didn’t know how to use the system, or they didn’t look at all of the footage,” explains Ring, who handled the ensuing civil case with associate Brendan Gilbert. The abuse continued for months. Finally, after pressure from the victim’s family, the footage was turned over to the police, who found the proof. Lamb was arrested and sentenced to 16 years in prison.
After the criminal trial, Ring was brought on board to sue the school district. They settled for $10M, which is one of the largest ever paid to a single plaintiff in a sexual abuse case against a school district in California.
Sometimes the defense refuses to settle, or gives a lowball offer. So, the firm is always ready to go to trial. Recently, partner Natalie Weatherford tried a case against Union School District in San Jose. A middle school band teacher with the district, Samuel Niepp, was accused of having multiple sexual relationships with students as young as 12 over a period of eight years. After Niepp’s criminal trial, Weatherford represented one of the two Jane Does in the civil case.
Niepp’s abuse began in his first year of teaching. He began to groom Weatherford’s client, Jane Doe 2: paying her special attention, complimenting her, texting her late at night. Two years later, after she had changed schools, he invited her back into his classroom in the evenings, and the physical abuse began. She was in ninth grade.
“[The district] swept it under the rug for eight years. And because of that, a lot of girls were abused."
Of course, they never stop at just one. With reports of Niepp’s actions ignored or only mildly rebuked by school administration, Weatherford says, “He became emboldened. His abuse got progressively more severe the longer he was at the school, which is typical of perpetrators who are able to stay in one place, getting away with their abuse.” Jane Doe 1, represented by Lauren Cerri of Corsiglia, McMahon & Allard, was abused several years later.
Niepp threatened Jane Doe 1 with posting her explicit photos online if she told anyone what he was doing to her – known as criminal sextortion. Nevertheless, she did come forward, which inspired Weatherford’s client to join the case. In the end, Niepp was sentenced to 56 years in prison, and Weatherford and Cerri’s united efforts against the school district resulted in a jury verdict of an astounding $102M.
The case is now on appeal, but Weatherford is confident that juries understand what the district should have done differently and the depth of harm her client suffered. “[The district] swept it under the rug for eight years. And because of that, a lot of girls were abused,” she says.
A DEVELOPING CASE
The most shocking aspect of these cases can often be the volume of information that the people in charge knew. One of the most staggering examples is in the cases Taylor is bringing against the Los Angeles Unified School District, representing multiple women who say they were abused while students at Cleveland High School.
Taylor’s clients were a part of the high school’s humanities magnet program, called Core. Core operated like a separate school inside Cleveland High, with its own teachers and curriculum, lauded for their academic rigor and unconventional thinking. Core teachers were known for their egalitarian relationships with their students, more like friends; they often spent time with students outside of school. “The idea was to teach students to push boundaries, to question and to be exposed to various social issues,” says Taylor. “It is a fine idea, except that it began to utilize abusive psychological exercises, and then crossed over into physical sexual abuse.”
It became an open secret in the school that students and teachers were sexually involved.
The first victim who came to Taylor & Ring alleged that two teachers, Chris Miller and Vivian Atkin, involved this student in their extramarital affair. After the first claim was brought, the firm received a flurry of supportive responses – and others who said, “The same thing happened to me.” Currently, the firm is representing five plaintiffs who are bringing abuse claims that span from 1992 to 2009 and name at least four teachers.
In this case, part of the grooming process involved weaponizing the students’ intelligence against them. In an academic environment, especially one as rigorous as the Core program, the line between educational praise and sexual grooming becomes desperately blurred. Taylor explains: “A teacher could say, ‘You're smart. You're sophisticated. Your parents don't understand this. Other teachers might not understand this, but the relationship that you and I have is special, and we can take these next, more sexually involved steps, because you’re sophisticated enough to be able to deal with it.'”
The firm received a flurry of supportive responses – and others who said, 'The same thing happened to me.'
Everyone wants to feel special. Often, by the time they’ve been groomed, these children have lost the distinction between what’s appropriate and what isn’t. It’s up to the other adults in power to recognize that difference. At least, it should be.
WHERE SCHOOL DISTRICTS CAN FAIL
Silence can be deafening. Silence defined all these cases – the silence of teachers, administrators and other adults in power who were required to report abuse and didn’t. In all three of these cases, the attorneys argue the districts had ample warning something was wrong. In the Lucia Mar case, despite knowledge of Lamb’s criminal background, reports from the family and video evidence, he remained employed and able to continue his abuse. The victim’s guardians say the transportation director looked the 9-year-old girl in the eyes and said, “I don’t believe you.”
In the case with the band teacher, parents flagged Niepp’s inappropriate actions just before his third year of teaching: In the fall of 2010, one student’s parents brought in printouts of inappropriate texts he had been sending their daughter late at night. By that point, Weatherford says, administrators already knew something was amiss – the principal admitted she had already had a conversation with Niepp about not texting students. After the parents came forward, the school conducted a confidential internal review – and claimed to find nothing. The review, Weatherford explains, concluded only that Niepp was having trouble adjusting to being a teacher and needed coaching and guidance.
“This school district had a ton of information about this perpetrator being inappropriate with little girls, right from the time he started until the day the police arrested him in his classroom,” Weatherford says. He remained employed until his arrest.
In the Core case, Taylor says parents brought their concerns to the school in at least six instances and, despite mandated reporting laws, in most cases nothing happened. When action was taken, it still didn’t raise the alarm bells.
Years before this litigation, two teachers in the Core program were arrested for sexual abuse. One commissioned a student to pose nude for him between 2002 and 2003, and the other was arrested for having sex with a student in 2008. The latter victim told a school counselor, who did the right thing and reported the abuse. That victim now makes the fifth plaintiff in Taylor’s civil case against the district.
Despite these arrests, Taylor says the school still did not increase supervision over the Core program. So, the abuse continued. “When you look at the number of teachers who were involved, sometimes with another teacher, over the length of time, it’s appalling,” he adds. “The inappropriate relationships, lack of boundaries, lack of supervision, was normalized by the teachers and by the school administrators, so nothing was done.” In fact, Taylor says that the cycle of abuse became so engrained in the program that a former student, Brett Shufelt, came back as a teacher and is now one of those named in the lawsuit.
WHAT NEEDS TO CHANGE
After decades of this work, the partners are attuned to the environments in which abuse thrives. Plenty of school districts, notes Ring, are doing an exemplary job and can serve as examples to those with systemic abuse problems. "It comes down to strong leadership and a strong school culture where this behavior is not tolerated,” he says. “In successful districts, the leadership is very visible – the principal or assistant principals are making their rounds around the school.”
Weatherford agrees that surveillance is a key component to preventing abuse. “It’s the little things, like putting cameras in the school hallways so they can keep a lookout to see if one teacher is spending a lot of time with a student. If someone knows they’re being watched, they won’t try things,” she explains. And since, as Ring explains, teachers can change schools to one where it’s easier to get away with their abuse, the more districts that stay vigilant, the better.
Ring adds that mandatory reporting training needs to increase, along with disciplinary actions when suspicions of abuse are not reported. “If there's not enough training, people are afraid to report,” he says. “They don't know the responsibilities for reporting, and there's no teeth to it.”
Taylor adds that the implementation of that training through a shift in school culture is vital. “The culture of the school must demonstrate to teachers that if they come forward, nothing will happen to them. Instead of being criticized or isolated for reporting abuse, they will be valued and respected.” The firm wants school administrations to understand they’re not powerless: Abuse can be stopped at its source with appropriate teacher training and support.
HOW LITIGATION HELPS VICTIMS REGAIN CONTROL
As with Ring’s first sexual abuse case back in the ‘90s, the attorneys at Taylor & Ring fight for their clients because they see the power a successful result has on victims’ healing. In Weatherford’s case against Union School District, her client is now a medical student at Yale, seemingly thriving, but still emotionally damaged from the abuse inflicted on her as a middle schooler. When the verdict came, Weatherford said that her client was initially shocked, then empowered. “She did not deserve what happened to her, and she blamed herself for the abuse for a really long time,” Weatherford says. “Going to trial and having a jury of 12 people tell her, ‘It’s not your fault,’ was the most rewarding thing.”
“The culture of the school must demonstrate to teachers that if they come forward, nothing will happen to them. Instead of being criticized or isolated for reporting abuse, they will be valued and respected.”
That feeling is what keeps Taylor doing this kind of work. He says the most fulfilling aspect is “seeing survivors take back control. They're not going to let this event define them or be the victim. It's a step in their healing.” Ring agrees: “After a case, the victim tends to say, ‘Hey, thank you. This has really made an impact on my life, and I feel better about myself and about what happened.’ That's the one constant that's been really rewarding to everyone here – hearing that from our clients for the last 20 years.”
Thanks to increasing awareness around the effects of sexual abuse, the partners believe that jurors are becoming more understanding and more likely to give awards that match the harm their clients suffer. “Jurors don’t want to hear victim blaming,” Ring says. “They want to hear how it could have been prevented.” The size of the awards the firm is securing now, like the Lucia Mar settlement and the Union School District verdict, are indicative of this shift: “As people are becoming more familiar with the impact sexual abuse has on a person, this is going to become the norm,” Weatherford explains.
Taylor also believes that these kinds of cases can encourage more victims to come forward. “Drawing attention to the potential for abusive relationships hopefully develops an awareness,” he explains.
However, he emphasizes, when it comes to preventing abuse, the onus is on the systems and individuals of the school districts. In all of these cases, the adults are the ones at fault: both those abusing students and those who turned a blind eye. Taylor & Ring is seeking to build a world where adults take responsibility in making students feel both special and safe – one case at a time.