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News / Northwest

‘Coaches are very powerful’: Pierce County school district settles sex-abuse claims

By Shea Johnson, The News Tribune
Published: May 23, 2023, 7:28am

TACOMA — The University Place School District has agreed to pay $9.5 million to settle legal claims from three former students who alleged they were sexually abused by a volunteer wrestling coach during the mid-2000s.

The settlement resolves claims brought in a 2021 lawsuit in Pierce County Superior Court by the students against David O’Connor and avoids a jury trial that was scheduled to begin on Monday.

O’Connor was a volunteer wrestling coach at Curtis Junior High and Curtis High School when the alleged abuse occurred multiple times during an off-campus weightlifting and conditioning program, according to court records and interviews Monday with the accusers and their attorneys.

The students, who were between 14 and 16 years old at the time of the purported abuse from 2005 to 2007, claimed that O’Connor fondled and masturbated them. Vincent Nappo, an attorney representing the students with the law firm Pfau Cochran Vertertis Amala PLLC, said O’Connor had justified his behavior as checking for hernias or conducting mental conditioning.

“He did what predators do,” Nappo told The News Tribune.

In a statement Monday, district Superintendent Jeff Chamberlin said that student safety and education is the district’s top priority. He acknowledged that the district had reached a settlement, which court records show occurred on May 16, to be paid by the district’s insurers and noted that it had been “many years” since O’Connor had been associated with UPSD.

“We are deeply saddened by these allegations and are sorry for any pain or suffering that students may have experienced,” Chamberlin said. “Out of respect for the privacy of those involved we are unable to provide additional comments.”

The settlement comes less than a year after the school district agreed to pay $4.2 million to resolve legal claims brought by six other students who also accused O’Connor of sexual abuse. Those students had also been represented by Nappo, others with his law firm and Washington Law Center.

Messages left on a phone number and for two email addresses that public records showed might belong to O’Connor were not returned Monday.

District’s alleged failures

In less than a year, the school district has now agreed to pay nearly $14 million to settle two cases involving nine former students who claimed they were victims of O’Connor’s abuse. For the three ex-student wrestlers in the most recently resolved case, the settlement represented some form of accountability and a sense of closure.

“For the longest time I just kind of felt like nothing would ever happen. It was just this horrible thing that happened to me and I was like, ‘OK, push on through this, try to forget that it happened,’” one former student said in an interview.

The News Tribune isn’t naming the former students, who are identified by their initials in court records, because they are alleged victims of sex crimes.

“I wish it never would have happened, but it makes me feel better about the future and how things can go,” the ex-student said.

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In 2014, O’Connor was charged with third-degree molestation after two men, including a different plaintiff in this civil case, came forward with similar accusations. Charges were dropped, however, because the statute of limitations had expired.

The former student who accused O’Connor of abuse nearly a decade ago, and whose claims were part of this civil case, told The News Tribune on Monday that he had came forward in 2014 after the topic was broached during a college counseling session and he realized he might not have been the only alleged victim.

When charges were dismissed, the former student said he reverted to bottling up the past, believing nothing would be done about it.

“It feels like they are finally just recognizing me,” he said about the school district.

Nappo said the settlement speaks to how seriously the district, looking back nearly two decades, treated this case. He commended the district for not forcing the former students to relive the purported abuse in a trial.

The district also erred in giving O’Connor a coaching position in the first place, according to Nappo, who said attorneys had uncovered evidence that he had been convicted in the late 1970s of sexually abusing five children in Lewis County.

The district should never have allowed the ex-coach to have unsupervised access to students in his off-campus training program, he said. The district appeared to have had safeguards in place but failed to ensure they were followed, he added.

“Coaches are very powerful. They’re very looked up to,” one of the former students said. “As a teenage kid, yeah, it helped to have someone guiding you. And if they’re guiding you the wrong way, you really don’t know.”

In a statement earlier Monday announcing the settlement, Nappo said that a number of witnesses were prepared to testify that O’Connor was known to be “touchy feely” towards boys, acted inappropriately in the locker room and conducted off-campus weightlifting alone with them.

“This was definitely not a secret,” a plaintiff told The News Tribune, referring to the off-campus program. “If you were to look at Dave O’Connor on paper, he had a lot of normal qualities. You can’t just rely on this attitude of, ‘oh, I know this person.’”

Seeking positive change

Nappo said he represents others in pending cases claiming they were sexually abused by O’Connor. Attorneys say his alleged abuse extended beyond the wrestling program at Curtis Junior High and Curtis High School and into his work in church and the neighborhood.

After his 1977 conviction for indecent liberties involving children, a judge reversed his pleas after O’Connor completed sexual deviancy treatment at Western State Hospital, The News Tribune previously reported. The News Tribune also reported that he was briefly fired for inappropriately touching subordinates following his hiring in 2005 at the Special Commitment Center for dangerous sex offenders. O’Connor was later reinstated, however, and subjected to lesser punishment.

The ex-student wrestlers expressed concerns that he could still be a threat in Pierce County, where he is believed to still reside. One, who had since moved out of state, said he wants to return to visit but there are many negative memories. The two others, who remain in the vicinity, agreed that O’Connor’s shadow looms large.

“That’s something that I think about often,” one former student said. “If I see someone who has the same kind of physique and looks similar from far away, you’re heart starts to race and you think, ‘oh, is this Dave?’”

The former students were hopeful that the settlement could spell progress by ensuring the district properly screens its hires and serving as guidance that everyone has a duty to protect children. The buzz and media attention from a nearly $10 million settlement, one said, will hopefully persuade those in power to enact additional protections for students.

Attorney Ashton Dennis, of Washington Law Center, told The News Tribune that the plaintiffs in this case had sought out positive change.

“They’ve undoubtedly done so and they deserve our thanks,” he said.