Two boys who were sexually abused by their Los Angeles Unified School District elementary teacher were awarded $3 million each in compensation Thursday.
A Los Angeles jury deliberated for just a few hours before deciding that the school district should pay the boys far more than it offered to compensate for abuse by Paul Chapel III, a former third-grade teacher at Telfair Elementary in Pacoima. Chapel is serving a 25-year prison term after his 2012 conviction for lewd acts with 13 children.
L.A. Unified had 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 it offered only $490,000 for one boy and slightly less for the other. The plaintiffs’ attorneys asked for more than $5 million each.
John Manly, the boys’ attorney, hailed the jury and blasted the school district, saying L.A. Unified could have settled the case for far less.
“This is a total black eye on the district,” Manly said. “What this shows is that jurors in this city are not going to stand for a school district that doesn’t effectively deal with molesters.”
District officials said they were reviewing the verdict and had no comment.
Craig Barnes, who represented the district, told jurors that the boys had ended their medical treatment and appeared 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, he said.
But Vince Finaldi, who also represented the boys, reminded jurors that one boy testified that he still endures flashbacks and suffers nightmares of Chapel chasing him and that he 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.”
Manly criticized the district’s legal strategy of trying to attribute some of the boys’ trauma to their ADHD, their tough Pacoima neighborhood and the loss of loved ones.
“They used their disabilities as a sword against them,” he said.
A key point of contention was the validity of the two sides’ respective experts.
In his closing argument, Finaldi 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 she revealed under cross-examination that the study involved adults and was not necessarily confined to sexual abuse victims, Finaldi said.
Barnes, for his part, criticized the expert for the plaintiffs, Beverly Hills psychiatrist Brian Jacks, for dismissing much current trauma research for his own “speculative” judgments.
Chapel was hired by L.A. Unified in 1988 and kept on despite a 1997 arrest and criminal trial over the 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 when he had 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.
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