Summer camp’s $1M settlement to alleged abuse victim approved
A judge Wednesday approved a summer youth camp’s proposal to pay $1 million to settle a lawsuit brought by a 34-year-old man who sued the facility and the San Marino Unified School District, alleging the plaintiff was sexually abused by a choir teacher years earlier who also was a counselor at the camp.
The plaintiff is identified only as John Doe in the Los Angeles Superior Court lawsuit filed against the SMUSD, the River Way Ranch Camp in Sanger, east of Fresno, and the plaintiff’s alleged abuser, Howard Cheung.
On Wednesday, Judge Douglas Stern signed an order consenting to the $1 million payment to the plaintiff to settle his one negligence claim against the camp.
Cheung worked for about 12 years at River Way during the summer when he was not teaching at the SMUSD, according to the camp’s attorney’s court papers.
“He (Cheung) was extremely popular, a crowd pleaser, and the reason why many students returned to the camp each summer,” the camp’s attorney states.
River Way did not know the plaintiff was allegedly sexually abused in the summer of 2004 until the camp was served with the complaint in 2021, according to the camp’s attorney’s court papers, which further state that the facility “has always employed strict procedures and extensive training to protect minors at the camp to prevent the type of claim made by plaintiff in this case.”
According to the suit filed in April 2021, Doe began attending Huntington Middle School in the sixth grade in the 2000-01 school year, during which he and other students went on a week-long trip to River Way Ranch Camp, where they engaged in stargazing, hiking and singing.
The camp was run by high school-aged counselors, each of whom was in charge of nine to 10 students for the week, the suit states. Cheung, known as “Gizmo,” supervised the counselors and was a fan favorite among students at the camp, according to the suit.
Cheung was hired that same school year at HMS and Doe, like other students, was “infatuated with Cheung,” the suit states.
In the spring of his sixth-grade year, Doe and other science students went on a trip to Northern California and Cheung was one of the chaperones. On the last night, Cheung went to Doe’s room, where the two talked about their shared love for singing and how Cheung wanted to start a choir program at HMS, according to the suit.
Cheung allegedly kissed Doe on the cheek before he left.
For the remainder of sixth grade, Doe showed up early at school and stayed in Cheung’s classroom, despite a school policy prohibiting students from being in the school hallways before 7:50 a.m., the suit states.
Cheung allegedly continued to groom and manipulate Doe when the plaintiff reached the seventh grade and Cheung made sure Doe was selected to the San Marino Chambers Singers group, which Cheung supervised, the suit states.
Cheung allegedly started to sexually abuse Doe on campus and off campus during seventh and eighth grade, often in the teacher’s classroom before school, according to the suit.
In the summer of 2003 just before Doe entered San Marino High School, Cheung got him a six-week job working at the canteen at River Way Ranch Camp, the suit states. Doe shared a cabin with Cheung, who sexually abused him nearly every day, the suit alleges.
The alleged sexual abuse continued into high school, where Cheung also taught a choir class, the suit states. Cheung allegedly also sexually molested Doe during high school-sanctioned trips, some of which were international.
Teachers earlier at HMS and later at SMHS saw Cheung and Doe alone together in the teacher’s classroom many times and did nothing, the suit states. The teachers allegedly also observed Cheung give Doe special attention and have lunch brought to him from off-campus restaurants.
“They noticed Cheung taking plaintiff home after choir practice and being in his hotel room late at night during out-of-town choir performances,” the suit states. “Despite this, they took no action.”