University Place School District settles sexual abuse case for $9.5M
May 22, 2023, 11:23 AM | Updated: 3:53 pm
The University Place School District has agreed to pay $9.5 million to three former students who allege they were sexually abused by Curtis Junior High and Curtis High School volunteer wrestling coach David O’Connor.
The lawsuit was filed in October 2021. The plaintiffs allege they were sexually abused between 2005 and 2007 by O’Connor during an off-campus weightlifting and conditioning program he developed through his coaching position. The students were between 14 and 16 years old. O’Connor was a volunteer wrestling coach at the schools from 2003 to 2010.
One of the plaintiffs previously reported the abuse to Tacoma police in 2014 but was told that the criminal statute of limitations had expired.
The settlement will allow the parties to avoid a 4-week jury trial scheduled for May 22, 2023.
“The district commits extensive time and resources to protect students from abuse. This was true before and independent of the recent lawsuits that are the subject of your inquiry,” Jeff Chamberlin, UPSD Superintendent told KIRO Newsradio’s Kate Stone. “Thorough background checks are completed for all employees with the Washington State Patrol and the FBI before being hired.”
Chamberlin said, however, O’Connor was a volunteer and parent. He did not make it clear whether O’Connor went through the background check process.
“We spoke with nearly a dozen former students from the District’s wrestling teams who were prepared to testify that Coach O’Connor used his coaching position to access, isolate, and sexually abuse them,” attorney Steve Reich said. “We also learned from witnesses that Coach O’Connor was believed to have abused children outside of the wrestling program, including from his church and in the neighborhood.”
According to the plaintiffs’ attorney, the University Place School District never should have allowed O’Connor to coach at the school because he was previously convicted of crimes against children.
“A number of witnesses were going to testify at trial that Coach O’Connor was known to be ‘touchy feely’ towards boys and acted inappropriately in the locker room. In addition, it was known among coaches that Coach O’Connor spent time alone with students off-campus weightlifting,” attorney Vincent Nappo explained. “We believe Coach O’Connor’s locker room behavior and out-of-school contact with students should have raised concerns.”
The plaintiffs also alleged that the District failed to enforce safe boundaries between O’Connor and its student wrestlers.
“We uncovered evidence that Coach O’Connor was found guilty in 1977 of sexually abusing five children in Chehalis, Washington,” Nappo said. “Unfortunately, the District did not flag Coach O’Connor’s criminal history in its hiring and screening process before giving him a coaching position.”
Most recently, a former substitute University Place teacher, coach, and mentor were charged with over a dozen sex crimes against children.
Pierce County prosecutors charged Michael Basse with a laundry list of crimes in April. The charging documents list five accusers, but an attorney representing three believes there are more out there.
Kate Stone contributed to this report