The Los Angeles Unified School District has admitted it failed to adequately supervise an elementary school teacher convicted of sexually molesting two boys but pushed back Thursday on their demands for substantial compensation.
The harmful effects of the abuse should be separated from other stressful factors in the boys' lives at the time, such as the death of their fathers, their tough Pacoima neighborhood and such medical conditions as ADHD, the school system's attorney, Craig Barnes, told jurors.
But that argument was blasted by the boys' attorney, John Manly, as the "cynical creation of an organization that simply isn't taking responsibility for what they did."
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"What's hurting these boys is the fact that they were violated by their teacher," Manly argued.
The opening statements came in the civil case involving Paul Chapel III, formerly a third-grade teacher at Telfair Elementary in Pacoima who was sentenced to 25 years in prison after his 2012 conviction of lewd acts with 13 children.
In the case argued Thursday, L.A. Unified has accepted liability for negligent hiring, supervision and retention of Chapel, who was accused of kissing and touching both boys, including the genitals of one of them, in the 2010-11 school year.
In his opening remarks, Manly sought to paint vivid pictures of the abuse -- showing jurors large color photos of the smiling boys and lying on the floor to demonstrate how Chapel would lift up their shirts, fill their navels with water and blow on their skin. He likened Chapel to a hammerhead shark "swimming in the waters of Telfair" seeking prey, until Superior Court Judge Mark Mooney asked him to tone down the colorful language.
"This case is not about money. It's about the future of these kids," Manly told the jurors.
Barnes began his presentation by apologizing to the boys' mothers, who wept during parts of the trial. He said L.A. Unified was not disputing that abuse occurred or that the boys would need treatment but disagreed over the extent of harm suffered, the kind of care needed and the amount of future earnings lost.
"This is a debate over how you justly compensate these boys," Barnes said.
The two attorneys 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. Manly also took issue when Barnes told jurors that one of the boys had reportedly exposed himself to other students before Chapel's abuse, saying it was an inappropriate reference to past sexual history that should be disallowed.
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 it. State education officials reinstated Chapel's teaching credentials.
But several teachers at his first district school, Andasol Elementary, and 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, according to Manly's trial brief.