Yonkers Approves $2 Million Settlements for Decades-Old Sexual Abuse Claims Against Teachers

On November 28th, Yonkers City Council authorized settlements amounting to $2 million for four former students who alleged sexual abuse by teachers in the 1970s and 1980s. The settlements, awarded under the New York Child Victims Act, result from complaints filed in June 2021. The 2019 law allows “victims of child sexual assault to bring civil lawsuits up until their 55th birthday.

Three of the complaints involved allegations of sexual assault by a shop teacher, Daniel Vassello. Vassello taught at Emerson Middle School (now Cross Hill Academy). The fourth complaint concerned a fourth-grade teacher, Martin O’Keefe, at School 23 in 1980. O’Keefe had been previously dismissed from the Archdiocese of New York for inappropriate sexual conduct with young boys.

The victims, who were as young as 10 years old at the time of the alleged abuse, claimed to have endured suffering throughout their lives. They asserted that the psychological, physical, and emotional harm done to them as children prevented them from living normal lives.

Complaints Within Statue of Limitations

The complaints filed in June 2021 fell within the state of limitations under the New York Child Victims Act. Initially, the City of Yonkers and Yonkers School District contested the claims. They contended that the students were partially culpable for the assaults and responded poorly to their teachers’ advances.

In response to the students’ allegations, Dennis Lynch, the district’s legal counsel, wrote, “Any damages allegedly suffered by plaintiff were caused in whole or in part by the culpable conduct of the plaintiff. The plaintiff’s claims are therefore barred or diminished in the proportion that such culpable conduct of the plaintiff bears to the total culpable conduct causing the damages.”

City of Yonkers spokeswoman Christina Gilmartin stated that during early pleadings of a case, the City employed a standard legal strategy in their defense.

City Plans to Borrow $2M For Settlements

Of the $2 million settlement, $600,000 was awarded to a victim of Vassello. The victim alleged sexual abuse by his teacher from 13 years old and over a period of three years. The other two victims from Emerson Middle School received $500,000 and $450,000, respectively. Vassello allegedly took advantage of his position, inviting students to his apartment, providing explicit materials, and engaging in inappropriate conduct.

The Council also awarded $450,000 to O’Keefe’s alleged victim. According the complaint, “O’Keefe would invite plaintiff and other students to stay after school to help clean up, and in exchange, O’Keefe gave the boys money and treats.

The city intends to borrow $2 million to cover the settlements. Furthermore, it supports a bill seeking to establish the Child Victims Act Fund. This fund would provide money for public school districts facing such cases. The bill, however, did not advance in the 2023 legislative session.

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