Puyallup School District to pay $7.75 million to settle suit claiming ex-teacher abused 7 boys

By Lewis Kamb | Seattle Times, 4/27/2021

Over more than a dozen years, former Puyallup junior high teacher and coach Tim Paulsen focused his attention on boys with troubled home lives and no father figures, according to interviews and court records. Paulsen openly gave his Kalles Junior High students hugs, held one-on-one meetings with them, wrote them personal letters of encouragement and talked about religion with them, a lawsuit filed last year contends. Sometimes, he’d take the boys on trips, bring them home for sleepovers, even shower with them after games and practices. Along the way, Paulsen sexually molested them, the lawsuit states. A year after seven former students sued the Puyallup School District for neglecting to prevent the teacher from his “repeated acts of grooming and sexual abuse” during a career that spanned from 1991 to 2004, the district has paid a $7.75 million settlement.

The former students — all men now ranging in age from 30 to 41 — separately came forward to attorney Julie Kays in 2019 to disclose Paulsen’s alleged abuse, and the role the district played in it, after seeing a KIRO TV news report about similar claims made by another ex-student that resulted in a separate $1.5 million settlement. Paulsen’s abuse was so brazen that “it should have set off alarm bells to any reasonable educator,” said Kays, with the Seattle law firm Friedman Rubin. “He was violating every kind of norm,” she said. “But he’d bonded with the school’s principal at church and had such close friendships with several faculty members that they turned a blind eye to the fact that he was a child predator.” The Puyallup School District did not respond to several messages left Monday seeking comment about the settlement. Before paying what Kays described as an “astronomical sum” to settle the latest case, the district had denied it was liable “because Paulsen’s alleged conduct was not within the course and scope of his employment,” according to legal filings. Paulsen, 54, who still lives in Pierce County, works for a real estate firm and had been active in ministry work as recently as 2018, did not return messages Monday.

The recently settled suit represents the latest of several civil cases in which at least nine former students have alleged Paulsen sexually abused them. That includes a 2010 divorce filing by Paulsen’s ex-wife involving restrictions on visitation with their three children due to his “past sexual abuse of minors.” Paulsen has not been criminally charged regarding any of the abuse allegations. The statute of limitations for such charges has long expired, said Kays, a former King County prosecutor who specialized in sexual assault cases. “That still keeps me up at night,” a 30-year-old Pierce County man, the youngest plaintiff in the latest case, said in a recent interview. “He’s faced no consequences. I would trade this [settlement] any day of the week to see him held accountable.” The man, and another plaintiff interviewed for this story — a 40-year-old King County resident — asked not to be named. The Seattle Times typically does not identify victims of reported sexual abuse without their permission.

‘A blind eye’

Hired in 1991, Paulsen, then 24, was assigned to Kalles Junior High to teach and coach several sports, and “began his predatory grooming and molestation of vulnerable young boys immediately,” the lawsuit states. During his first year as a full-time teacher, Paulsen found “his first male student victim” — who’s now 41 and the oldest of the case’s seven plaintiffs. But even after some teachers and parents raised concerns about Paulsen’s “intimacy with young male students,” the principal and many of his colleagues routinely “turned a blind eye to the numerous acts of grooming, boundary crossing, and inappropriate conduct,” according to the suit. In 1997, after a father complained about Paulsen’s relationship with his son, the district opened an investigation. It revealed Paulsen had been found hugging a boy behind closed doors and was seen tickling another student on his lap, records show. Other teachers “have been told” about Paulsen’s conduct with boys, typically those “from troubled homes,” according to notes from the investigation included in the suit. Still, the district didn’t report Paulsen’s conduct to state child welfare officials or police. “Instead the District swept Teacher Paulsen’s predatory behavior under the rug and merely advised [him] to not have one-on-one contact with the named student,” the suit states. Within a couple of weeks of that 1997 admonishment, “it was like it didn’t exist,” Kays said. “No one ever enforced it.”

Paulsen worked at the school for seven more years and became “emboldened … to continue grooming and molesting other young male students,” the suit states. Among them was the 30-year-old Pierce County man, who alleges Paulsen abused him as a seventh-grade basketball player. The man said he ultimately escaped Paulsen by convincing his single working mom to transfer him to a different school. He never gave her the true reason. That man, now in recovery from pain pill addiction, said he soon started drinking, taking drugs and running away to “numb the pain” of his youth. He never really connected his troubles to what Paulsen did to him until about 18 months ago, when he finally broke down and told his parents about the abuse, he said. A week later, the man saw the TV news story about the other student’s lawsuit against Paulsen. “I spent a lot of years pretending I was OK,” he said.

Another plaintiff, the 40-year-old King County man, who is a married technology professional with two preschool-aged boys, said he hadn’t fully recognized that Paulsen abused him until he watched the 2019 news story. “It really made me second-guess everything,” he said. When he entered junior high, his parents had just divorced and he was “really looking for a male role model,” he said. Paulsen used religion “to worm himself into our family and gain trust.” “He was very convincing,” the man recalled. “He told me he was my quote-unquote ‘brother,’ and that he loved me and we were doing things that brothers do.” For him, the legal settlement isn’t about money, he added. “I wanted to bring awareness, both about him as an abuser and the district for allowing this to happen,” he said. “Hopefully, it can stop this from happening to some other kid.”

Seattle Times news researcher Miyoko Wolf contributed to this report.