LOS ANGELES — It was an open secret at Brentwood School, a $44,000-a-year private academy in Los Angeles with a roster of famous alumni, that science teacher Aimee Palmitessa flirted with male students.
She once posed with kids in her class wearing matching T-shirts that said “AP Chem 2014 has me … (Mg,Fe)₇Si₈O₂₂(OH)₂” — a reference to the symbols for the mineral cummingtonite. A former student recalled her making a suggestive joke next to the word “sex” on one of his tests. Another student talked to friends about having sex with her. That boy eventually transferred to another school — but Palmitessa continued teaching at the Brentwood high school.
In 2016, Palmitessa forged a relationship with a sophomore student in her honors chemistry class. She listened to him describe his shyness around girls. She defended him when he got in trouble for being at a party where students were filmed singing along to a rap song that included a racial slur. By the following year, she was welcoming visits from the student in her office almost every day.
Palmitessa sexually assaulted the boy, who was too young to legally consent, for the first time in June 2017. The student, referred to as John Doe in this story, was 17 years old and had never had sex before. They continued seeing each other secretly throughout the summer. Palmitessa instructed Doe to have rough sex with her. She assured him that they were a real couple. They had a fake “wedding” ceremony where they dressed up, exchanged vows and gave each other bracelets.
Doe’s parents found out about Palmitessa’s relationship with their son in August 2017 and contacted law enforcement. Doe began recording his phone and video calls with the teacher. In those conversations, she veered between saying that she loved him and that she hated him.
“I’m gonna bite you. I’m gonna draw blood,” Palmitessa told Doe in one conversation, court records would later show. “You’ll be crying like a fucking bitch, but I don’t care. I have no empathy. You deserve it. And you’re so fucking cute that you have to be punished for being so fucking cute.”
Palmitessa fretted about the start of a new school year, which would make it harder for them to see each other privately. She worried about girls giving him attention. She told him she didn’t want to go to jail, according to court records.
The teacher was arrested on Aug. 18, 2017, a week after Doe’s parents approached law enforcement. Prosecutors charged her with 12 felonies related to having sex with a minor.
“His day-to-day existence continues to be dominated by scars inflicted by ... sexual abuse he experienced at the hands of someone whose primary obligation as a teacher of children, as his teacher, was to ensure his safety.”
Although Palmitessa was placed on administrative leave, the school’s head, Michael Riera, urged parents in a series of emails to avoid speculating about what she did or talking to the media. Riera, who goes by “Dr. Mike,” emailed families a month after Palmitessa’s arrest to announce that the teacher had pleaded not guilty and was free on bail — a message that some parents interpreted as an effort to minimize the seriousness of the allegations. Riera sent a follow-up email the next day clarifying that it is “typical” for defendants to plead not guilty in the early stages of criminal cases.
In February 2018, Dr. Mike told parents that Julie Yanow, a workplace investigator hired by the school to review the Palmitessa case, had completed her investigation. Dr. Mike pledged to develop a better system for reporting misconduct, but admitted no wrongdoing on the part of the school. He did not discuss the statutory rape allegations against Palmitessa — he said only that she would not be returning to the school. Riera did not release the independent investigator’s report.
Some Brentwood School parents were dismayed by the school’s cautious response: School officials avoided directly condemning Palmitessa. They didn’t address how they had failed to protect Doe or how they would protect kids at the school from future predators. And several faculty members who had failed to report Palmitessa’s actions remained on the school’s payroll.
“They should have followed up with more information,” one parent whose children went to Brentwood told HuffPost. “You’re talking about a 45-year-old raping an underage kid. Here we are entrusting the school to take care of our kids and they’re not following up and telling us what they’re doing.”
Even though they were paying the school’s steep tuition fees, parents didn’t feel they could pressure school administrators into being more transparent. They feared making a fuss might cost their kid a spot at the prestigious school, several parents said in interviews.
So on Aug. 6, 2018, Doe sued Brentwood School in Los Angeles County Superior Court. The 33-page complaint documented Palmitessa’s history of suggestive behavior toward students, even before Doe ended up in her classroom. In the complaint, Doe accused faculty and administrators of ignoring warning signs and failing to protect him from sexual abuse. The lawsuit, which included explicit details about how Palmitessa allegedly groomed and assaulted Doe, made headlines.
Then the case seemed to disappear.
That’s because Brentwood School quietly went to work trying to kill the lawsuit. Tucked into the school’s enrollment agreement is a single paragraph about mandatory arbitration. According to the agreement, any “controversy or claim” related to the school must be dealt with in arbitration, a secretive process with no jury, little oversight and limited options for obtaining information from the other party or appealing decisions.
If Doe’s case were allowed to move forward in civil court, his lawyers would have plenty of ways to get more information about how much the school knew about Palmitessa’s interactions with Doe and other students. They would have the right to request internal communications through discovery, the pretrial process of obtaining evidence, and to call witnesses to testify under oath. In civil court, Doe could be kept anonymous, but much of the information uncovered in the case would be made public. A jury would get to decide if he deserved compensation for his ordeal.
Instead, the elite private school has fought a nearly yearlong effort to eliminate Doe’s civil court case and deal with his allegations against Brentwood in a private arbitration process.
Some parents, even those who had carefully read the enrollment paperwork, expressed shock at the school’s legal approach.
“You shouldn’t have to negotiate, ‘Hey, if my kid gets raped, I want to be able to sue,’” another former Brentwood parent said. “Who in their right mind would think that if a school was negligent on child rape, that would be covered under an arbitration agreement?”
Forced arbitration is pervasive in U.S. workplaces — an Economic Policy Institute study estimated last year that more than 55% of workers are subject to mandatory arbitration agreements. Proponents tout the process as a faster, cheaper and more private alternative to litigation in court.
Research has shown that the process favors the employer. In a study of 3,945 cases, Cornell University’s Alexander Colvin found that workers’ success rate in arbitration was lower than in court — and that when they did prevail in arbitration, they tended to receive less money than similar litigants who went to court. The data also indicated that a worker’s chances of winning decreased when their employer had appeared before the same arbitrator multiple times.
The secrecy of the process can help protect repeat abusers as well.
At Fox News, for example, mandatory arbitration agreements allowed Roger Ailes to keep his job as a powerful television executive, even as multiple women accused him of sexual harassment. After former Fox News host Gretchen Carlson overcame the company’s arbitration agreement and sued Ailes for harassment, more than two dozen women went public with similar allegations. The Fox News CEO was forced to resign, albeit decades after the alleged abuse began.
In response to the Me Too movement, several major corporations have backed away from enforcing arbitration agreements in cases involving sexual misconduct allegations. Microsoft eliminated mandatory arbitration for sexual harassment claims in December 2017; Uber, Lyft, Google, Facebook and three major law firms adjusted their policies the following year.
When it comes to arbitration agreements between private schools and their students, however, there is a dearth of information.
Private schools have almost no obligation to make their internal policies public and they are subject to limited oversight. The Western Association of Schools and Colleges and the California Association of Independent Schools, the two organizations that have accredited Brentwood School, did not respond to several requests for comment about their position on member schools making arbitration agreements a condition of enrollment. Several lawyers and arbitration experts contacted for this story told HuffPost they had never heard of schools using forced arbitration.
Mandatory arbitration clauses have become prevalent enough in private schools that Liebert Cassidy Whitmore, a law firm in California, created an entire webinar about how schools can create legally enforceable arbitration agreements. Max Sank, one of the lawyers who presented the webinar, was also one of the lawyers who represented Brentwood in its attempt to keep Doe’s case out of court. (A preview of the webinar was removed from the firm’s website after HuffPost attempted to purchase access to the $100 video. Sank did not respond to requests for comment.)
HuffPost asked 30 highly ranked private schools in the U.S. if their students are subject to arbitration agreements. None of the schools admitted to it. Six told HuffPost they don’t use arbitration agreements; the rest declined to comment or didn’t respond.
Brentwood School also wouldn’t say when or why it began requiring parents to sign arbitration agreements on behalf of their kids. A version of that agreement from several years ago stated that even the “existence” of an arbitration proceeding was confidential, according to a copy of the agreement obtained by HuffPost. Brentwood later amended the language to say any arbitration “will be conducted in a confidential manner throughout and after the proceedings.”
The school uses an arbitration organization called JAMS, which typically provides a list of at least five potential arbitrators and allows each party to strike two names. The arbitrator usually decides what kind of information the parties can request from the opposing side. Unlike in court, almost no information from these proceedings becomes public record, and most decisions are final.
Vaguely worded arbitration clauses can allow schools to shield themselves from scrutiny in matters of sexual abuse, physical abuse, bullying and discrimination. Several small private Christian schools use these agreements to preempt potential lawsuits over their discriminatory policies against LGBTQ students.
But most parents, when they sign school enrollment agreements, aren’t thinking that they’re giving up their right to sue in cases of abuse.
“Did they really contemplate, ‘If my school harms my kid, I’m stuck in some bogus arbitration hearing?’” said David Ring, a lawyer who has represented several victims in sex abuse cases. “They’re thinking, ‘OK, if there’s a dispute over tuition or my kid drops out and I don’t get all my money back.’”
Brentwood officials emphasized the value of privacy in arbitration. The school attracts high-profile parents who may not want their families’ personal lives to play out in the public view.
“Arbitration is an appropriate way to address student claims, particularly when they involve significant privacy issues,” Riera, the head of the school, said in a statement. He added, “Nothing in the arbitration agreement prevents a student from raising any causes of action, or seeking any remedies, that would be available in civil litigation.” (Riera declined multiple requests for an interview through a spokeswoman.)
Asked through the spokeswoman whether the victim should be allowed to choose how best to protect their privacy, Riera did not respond.
“Any dispute I had with my children, I would want to remain private and not in the public court system,” Erika Aronson Stern, a member of Brentwood School’s board of trustees, told HuffPost. “I look at it as a mechanism to protect the student and I don’t know why any parent would have a problem with it unless their motivation was to have some sort of public spectacle,” Stern continued, noting that she was not referring specifically to the Palmitessa case.
Using arbitration agreements in schools can be particularly problematic because the victims are typically minors whom the school is responsible for protecting ― and who end up restricted by agreements their parents or guardians signed on their behalf.
Doe and his parents declined to comment for this story. The other boy who, according to Doe’s complaint, talked to friends about having sex with Palmitessa could not be reached for comment.
Attempting to force child abuse victims and many other aggrieved parties into arbitration would have once been inconceivable. But a series of Supreme Court decisions dating back to the 1990s — including several 5-4 rulings handed down by the court’s conservative majority — prompted an explosion in the number of people bound by contracts that restricted their access to the courts. The use of mandatory arbitration agreements grew by more than 600% between 1994 and 2017, according to the Economic Policy Institute.
The lower courts are still working out the details of the broader embrace of arbitration. In 2015, for example, a Los Angeles daycare facility tried to enforce an arbitration clause after parents accused two employees of sticking pushpins into toddlers’ legs when the children failed to follow instructions. An appellate court sided with the toddlers and their parents: Even if the facility had a valid arbitration provision, it did “not contemplate an agreement to arbitrate claims arising from physical abuse of the children,” the panel of judges wrote.
Ring, who represented the families in that case, said he has seen an increasing number of schools include arbitration clauses in their enrollment paperwork. “What do they have to lose?” he said. “If a judge says no, they’re right back where they would be.”
“You shouldn’t have to negotiate, ‘Hey, if my kid gets raped, I want to be able to sue.’”
Employees at Brentwood School should have known that Palmitessa was a problem and done something to protect students, Doe alleged in his complaint.
Before Palmitessa sexually assaulted Doe, the boy said he went to guidance counselor Robert Jost for help. Doe told Jost that he was in love with an older woman whom he saw every day. Jost asked if the woman worked at the school and Doe admitted that she did. The guidance counselor, the court filing alleged, responded by telling Doe about Emmanuel Macron, the president of France who met his wife when he was a teenager and she was his teacher.
Other school employees also allegedly failed to do much of anything. Palmitessa’s three officemates and her boss “witnessed the evolution of the relationship,” including Doe’s frequent visits to the office, according to the complaint.
Both Jost and one of Palmitessa’s officemates, Dawn Roje, did warn Palmitessa to stay away from Doe, but neither reported the matter to school management or state authorities, the complaint alleged. California law requires school employees, administrators and athletic coaches to report known or suspected instances of child abuse to authorities. As of Friday, Jost and Roje were still listed on Brentwood’s website as employees. They did not respond to requests for comment. Brentwood School disputed the allegations against its employees in court filings.
The school’s failure to stop Palmitessa caused Doe lasting emotional and physical damage, he alleged in the 2018 complaint. Even after her arrest, Doe continued to wear his “wedding” bracelet. He asked his parents to pay tuition for Palmitessa’s daughter. A psychiatrist placed him on 24-hour suicide watch. Palmitessa also allegedly failed to warn Doe until after they had unprotected sex that she had herpes, a treatable but incurable sexually transmitted disease.
The school “asks this Court to be the first in California — and the first in the country as our research shows — to hold that civil litigation arising out of the statutory rape of a student may be compelled into arbitration,” Doe’s lawyers wrote in an October 2018 court filing. “The Court should decline this invitation.”
Last November, a judge sided with Brentwood School. Records show Doe has appealed all the way up to the California Supreme Court, which has not yet decided whether to review his case.
Four years ago, another prestigious private school in Los Angeles was sued by a former student who had been sexually abused by teacher Joseph Koetters, became pregnant and eventually miscarried. Marlborough School, an all-girls institution 11 miles from Brentwood, had ignored misconduct allegations against Koetters and even helped him land a job at a different school, according to the 2015 civil complaint.
Chelsea Burkett, now 34, accused Koetters of having abused her in the early 2000s. She came forward after media reports began to reveal the teacher’s wrongdoing. The case was agonizing for Burkett, who chose to make her identity public after first filing the case anonymously. Marlborough’s lawyers argued in a court filing that by not coming forward earlier, she had “consciously exposed other girls to the risk of abuse.” The victim-blaming gambit played out in public and Marlborough retracted the filing and apologized a week later. Burkett, who was represented by Ring, and the school reached a confidential settlement in 2017.
Koetters also pleaded guilty to criminal charges of sexually abusing Burkett and another student. He served six months in jail.
Marlborough currently has a mandatory arbitration provision in its enrollment agreement — but communications director Carly Rodriguez said she didn’t know if that was the case when Burkett was a student.
Burkett told HuffPost that taking her case to arbitration would have been “directly antithetical” to her goal of holding Marlborough accountable. When the abuse scandal broke, it became clear that “there was going to be no notion of uncovering the truth or communicating it out to the broader community and public” from the school, Burkett said. “And while civil litigation isn’t a perfect remedy for that, it’s far more transparent than an arbitration process.” The litigation allowed Burkett and her lawyer to obtain information about Koetters’ misconduct at another school before he arrived at Marlborough.
Suing an institution can also be a way to push reform. “It certainly gets their attention and forces them to sit with consequences of the rules they’ve had in place, the people they hired,” Burkett said. “Even if they change because they don’t want to get sued again, that’s still a win. Ideally, they change because they want to keep kids safe.”
In March of this year, Marlborough invited Burkett and another former student who wrote about being pursued by Koetters to speak to current students and accept a “Courage Award.” The school did not impose any restrictions on what the two women could say. Burkett saw this as a positive sign.
“Did they really contemplate, ‘If my school harms my kid, I’m stuck in some bogus arbitration hearing?’”
As court rulings continue to expand the reach of forced arbitration agreements, lawmakers are increasingly looking at ways to rein them in. In 2014, President Barack Obama signed an executive order that limited the use of mandatory arbitration under federal contracts valued at more than $1 million. That same year, California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) signed a law that restricts the use of forced arbitration in civil rights and hate crimes cases. (Brown later vetoed a bill that would have outlawed mandatory arbitration agreements as a condition of employment, citing the U.S. Supreme Court’s interpretation of the Federal Arbitration Act.)
Earlier this year, Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), backed by over 30 co-sponsors, introduced a bill that would amend federal law to eliminate forced arbitration clauses as applied to employment, consumer and civil rights cases.
The bill doesn’t have any Republican co-sponsors yet, although there are signs of some Republican interest in arbitration reform. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), chairman of the Judiciary Committee, backed a 2017 measure that would have ended forced arbitration in cases involving sex discrimination and harassment. In April of this year, Graham convened a hearing on mandatory arbitration, which included testimony from a U.S. Navy reservist and a restaurant owner who fought the enforceability of certain arbitration agreements. Graham, through a spokesman, declined to comment on the Blumenthal bill.
But it’s unlikely that significant arbitration reform will become law under President Donald Trump, who unsuccessfully tried to force Stormy Daniels into arbitration when the porn star, who had received $130,000 from his lawyer to keep quiet about an alleged affair with Trump, sued to get out of a nondisclosure agreement. The president has also pursued arbitration against campaign staffers, including a woman who filed a workplace discrimination and harassment lawsuit against the Trump campaign.
Palmitessa pleaded no contest in April to three felony counts of unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor and was sentenced to three years in prison. After she was sentenced, Dr. Mike sent Brentwood parents another email.
“We sympathize with the student and family for the pain and distress Dr. Palmitessa caused and hope that the conclusion of these criminal proceedings will be some measure of relief,” he wrote. Dr. Mike didn’t mention that Brentwood School is still fighting to keep the victim out of civil court.
At the sentencing hearing, Deputy District Attorney Adrian Roxas of Los Angeles County read victim impact statements prepared by Doe and his parents. It was the first time that the young man and his parents, all of whom are bound by the arbitration agreement’s confidentiality requirements, disclosed publicly what they had been through.
“Our son has been permanently changed, damaged and scarred by this series of assaults,” Doe’s parents wrote in their statement. “Almost two years later, it seems our son has permanently lost the ability to make friends, has lost the ability to date, to socialize and to trust. Beyond the anxiety and risk of self-harm, his day-to-day existence continues to be dominated by scars inflicted by violent and dark psychological torture and sexual abuse he experienced at the hands of someone whose primary obligation as a teacher of children, as his teacher, was to ensure his safety,” they wrote.
Doe’s parents also hinted at the school’s efforts to evade responsibility. “Among the many ugly truths that we have learned on this journey is that many would prefer this type of issue never see the light of day. Apparently, Brentwood School believes in hiding this kind of conduct rather than flushing it out of the community,” they wrote.
Doe, who is now in college, wrote about his trust issues and his inability to emotionally connect with people. He told of enduring “ridicule, anxiety, confusion, depression, misery and more sleepless nights than I can count.” Nobody from Brentwood School ever reached out to him to apologize or accept responsibility, Doe said.
And nobody, he added, ever told him that they had taken steps to ensure that this never happens to another student again.
Illustration by Zoe van Dijk.