Buffalo News [Buffalo NY]
September 10, 2023
By Jay Tokasz
Cheektowaga Maryvale Union Free School District paid $8.4 million to settle five Child Victims Act lawsuits alleging sexual abuse of students in the 1970s by a music teacher.
The district agreed to separate confidential settlements with the five plaintiffs over the past year, according to legal documents released to The Buffalo News in response to a Freedom of Information Law request.
The largest settlement, for $3.5 million, went to a 60-year-old Lockport man identified in court papers as AB 504 Doe, who alleged being repeatedly molested by Stanley K. Bratt, a music teacher at Maryvale East Elementary School from 1968 to 1980.
The man said in court papers he was in third grade when Bratt first began providing private trumpet lessons. The teacher took the pupil on outings to see movies and play miniature golf and eventually brought the boy to his home, according to court papers. Bratt gained his trust over a period of years, and the abuse progressed from showering together to mutual masturbation, oral sex and attempted anal rape when the boy was 15, court papers said.
AB 504 Doe testified that he has struggled throughout his life with alcoholism, substance abuse, depression and other health problems, according to court papers.
The district’s insurance carrier, Hartford Insurance Co., paid $1.5 million of the settlement finalized on April 14. District taxpayers paid the rest. The case was settled the day before a jury was scheduled to be selected for trial.
Another settlement for $2.9 million was finalized on May 1 with plaintiff AB 515 Doe, who alleged being abused from 1976 to 1979, beginning when he was 11. Insurance paid $500,000 of the total settlement with AB 515 Doe.
The three other settlements were: $750,000 on Sept. 23, 2022, with an anonymous 61-year-old Cattaraugus County resident who alleged that Bratt abused him from 1969 to 1973, starting at age 7; $675,000 on March 21 with AB 513 Doe, a 63-year-old Williamsville man whose abuse by Bratt was alleged to have spanned 1969 to 1971, when the plaintiff was between the ages of 9 and 11; and $575,000 on Nov. 3, 2022, with AB 503 Doe, a 62-year-old Cheektowaga man who was 9 or 10 at the time of the alleged abuse by Bratt in 1970 and 1971. No insurance coverage was provided in those settlements.
Bratt was 34 when he killed himself in 1980 at his Cheektowaga home.
District Superintendent Joseph R. D’Angelo said settling the cases was “viewed as the safer option for taxpayers” rather than going to trial and risking potential large jury awards.
The district used $1.3 million in cash from its general fund and borrowed $5.1 million over five years to pay the settlements, said D’Angelo. With interest, the bond will be an annual expense of $1.2 million per year through 2028.
“We’re not the only school district in this position. Essentially what the state has done is ask current taxpayers to pay for what happened, in our case, over 50 years ago,” said D’Angelo. “This is in no way to diminish sexual abuse or child abuse. That’s the fine line we walk when discussing this, because it’s absolutely disgusting what happened to children, and we’re not trying to minimize that at all.”
The Child Victims Act opened a two-year “look back” window in 2018 for child sex abuse victims to sue organizations over their handling of employees or volunteers who committed abuse, even if the abuse happened decades ago, outside of the standard statute of limitations at the time.
An estimated 180 CVA lawsuits were lodged against public school districts in Western New York, according to a Buffalo News analysis.
The Ken-Ton district agreed to pay more than $17 million to settle several dozen lawsuits accusing a former elementary school teacher of molesting students between 1965 and 1989. The district used $7.5 million from reserves and borrowed the rest for the settlements.
A proposal for a state fund to assist school districts and other municipal entities with CVA has so far not advanced in the state Legislature, leaving district taxpayers to foot the full bill.
No settlement amount would correct for past abuses, said attorney Leah Costanzo, who represented four of the plaintiffs who settled.
But the resolution of the Maryvale cases provided clients with a “sense of relief” and “definitely gave them some closure,” she said.
The range of amounts was due to different facts in each of the cases, including when the district might have been on notice about Bratt’s alleged crimes, the type of abuse, the number of instances of molestation, the length of time over which abuses occurred, and the physical, mental and emotional impacts of the abuse, she said.
“All of those things went into calculating what we would have asked a jury for and what we felt was a fair resolution of their claim,” said Costanzo.
The plaintiffs described similar routines of grooming and gradual progression of touching that Bratt used with each of his victims.
Under the guise of teaching proper breathing and posture for playing instruments, Bratt was able to gain the trust of students by touching their shoulders, back and stomach, according to court papers.
The touching became more intimate and invasive over time, plaintiffs testified under oath.
One of the plaintiffs testified that he had reported Bratt’s abuse in 1975 or 1976 to a school guidance counselor who had called the student into his office to discuss his deteriorating grades and behavior in class.
AB 513 Doe said he told the counselor, John A. Seemueller, that Bratt took him on a camping trip and “we went in his pup tent and took off our clothes. I didn’t have to say any more. You know you don’t have to verbalize it. So I didn’t go into details, but I told him what generally happened.”
In an affidavit, though, Seemueller denied that he was told about alleged abuse by Bratt.
“At no time in my career at Maryvale do I ever recall such a statement being made to me,” Seemueller said in court papers. “And, even though I’m presently 89 years old, this statement would have been so shocking that I would remember it to this day.”
Sherryll Kraizer, an expert hired by one of the plaintiff’s attorneys, concluded that the testimony and district personnel documents show that Bratt “was not fit to work with children” and demonstrated patterns of behavior that “were not only a violation of accepted standards and practices during that time period, but also sufficient constructive notice that the school district should have further investigated.”
Kraizer is founder and director of Coalition for Children, a Denver-based nonprofit organization focused on preventing child abuse, sexual misconduct and bullying.
“Maryvale knew there were consistent parental complaints about Bratt’s preferential treatment of some students and rejection of others, that Bratt regularly took students in his private vehicle, and that Bratt provided selected students with special outside of school activities, including flying in his private plane, in violation of accepted standards of care and school district policies dating back to the 1970s, prior to all plaintiffs’ abuse,” Kraizer said in a report filed in court.
The district hired Bratt as a music teacher in 1968 and awarded him tenure in 1971. He also was the district band leader and volunteered as a scout leader with Cub Scout Pack 554. A case against the Boy Scouts of America alleging abuse by Bratt in his capacity as a scout volunteer ended up in federal bankruptcy court.