The Los Angeles Unified School District should pay two boys sexually abused by their elementary school teacher more than $5 million each, their attorneys told jurors Wednesday.
But the district countered with an offer of $490,000 for one boy and slightly less for the other, arguing that the amount would pay for any further medical treatments needed and help achieve their dreams of a four-year college education.
The claims came during closing arguments in a three-week trial to determine compensation for sexual abuse by Paul Chapel III, a former third-grade teacher at Telfair Elementary in Pacoima who is serving a 25-year prison term after his 2012 conviction for lewd acts with 13 children.
L.A. Unified has accepted liability for negligent hiring, supervision and retention of Chapel, who was accused of kissing and touching both boys — one on the genitals — during the 2010-11 school year.
But Craig Barnes, who represented L.A. Unified, said the district disagrees over the extent of harm suffered by the boys, the kind of care needed and the amount of future earnings lost.
Both sides have clashed over the validity of their respective experts, who came to different conclusions on how much psychological and emotional harm the abuse caused the boys.
In his closing argument, Vince Finaldi, one of the boys’ attorneys, sought to cast doubt on testimony by the district’s expert witness, Janine Shelby, a child trauma specialist and associate professor at the Harbor-UCLA Medical Center. Shelby told jurors that research suggests that half of trauma victims recover within three months — but only revealed under cross-examination that the study involved adults and was not necessarily confined to sexual abuse victims, Finaldi said.
Finaldi reminded jurors that one boy testified that he still gets flashbacks, suffers nightmares of Chapel chasing him and no longer trusts teachers. The other boy, although less willing to talk about the abuse, is anxious and fearful of being kidnapped, the attorney told jurors.
“The scars of sexual abuse will never go away,” Finaldi said. “It’s like the emotional murder of a part of your life.”
Finaldi asked jurors to award one of the boys about $300,000 and the other $890,000 for lost earnings, medical expenses and vocational rehabilitation. Plaintiffs are also asking for $5 million for each boy for pain, suffering and distress.
Barnes asked jurors to consider the evidence rather than what he called “subliminal messages” aimed at angering them against the district, including its large size. He also criticized the expert for the plaintiffs, Beverly Hills psychiatrist Brian Jacks, for dismissing much current trauma research for his own “speculative” judgments.
Barnes said the boys have ended their treatment and appear to be doing well, with good academic marks, dreams of becoming doctors and such hobbies as skateboarding and basketball. The compensation offered would help the boys pay for medical care, tutoring, college tours, summer school, travel and tuition to top universities.
“This makes sense if what you think about is what would make them whole,” Barnes said. “These boys have shown their resilience.”
Chapel was hired by L.A. Unified in 1988 despite a history of problems, including a 1997 arrest and criminal trial over alleged sexual abuse of a neighbor’s son. That case resulted in a hung jury and prosecutors chose not to retry him. State education officials reinstated Chapel’s teaching credentials.
But several teachers at his first district school, Andasol Elementary in Northridge, and at Telfair had complained about his behavior, according to court documents. Teachers said Chapel placed children in his lap, closed his classroom door with students inside during lunch and recess and attempted to take them on unauthorized field trips.
In March 2011, a parent complained to then-Telfair Principal Alfonso Jimenez that Chapel would kiss boys and girls in class. Jimenez interviewed several children and confirmed the allegations but allowed Chapel to remain in the classroom for six more weeks until he was removed April 15.
For more education news, follow me @TeresaWatanabe