Tem­pers flare over sidelin­ing of star teacher

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Zahira Tor­res

From his mod­est class­room at Ho­bart Boule­vard Ele­men­tary School in Kore­atown, Rafe Esquith be­came an ed­u­ca­tion su­per­star. His teach­ing tech­niques brought him world­wide recog­ni­tion, and his books be­came mod­els for how to en­gage young stu­dents.

But for the last two months of school, Esquith was side­lined. The Los An­ge­les Uni­fied School Dis­trict launched an in­ves­ti­ga­tion in March into al­le­ga­tions of mis­con­duct by the pop­u­lar teacher.

His at­tor­neys said the in­ves­ti­ga­tion is re­lated to com­ments about nu­dity that he made to stu­dents. In ad­di­tion, they said L. A. Uni­fied also is look­ing into Esquith’s non­profit, the Ho­bart Shake­speare­ans, a drama group for stu­dents.

The de­ci­sion to put him on leave — and keep him there for so long — has out­raged sup­port­ers. But dis­trict of­fi­cials have not backed down, say­ing that re­gard­less of his celebrity, they won’t send him back to school un­til their in­ves­ti­ga­tion is com­pleted.

The stand­off comes as the school dis­trict strug­gles

to re­cover af­ter a se­ries of scan­dals in­volv­ing teach­ers and ad­min­is­tra­tors ac­cused of sex­ual mis­con­duct with stu­dents. L. A. Uni­fied last year paid a record $ 139 mil­lion to the vic­tims of a Mi­ra­monte Ele­men­tary School teacher who was al­lowed to stay in the class­room even af­ter com­plaints about his be­hav­ior with stu­dents.

Some see the Esquith case as part of the dis­trict’s ef­fort to re­form in the wake of the scan­dals. But whether it is an over­cor­rec­tion re­mains a mat­ter of much de­bate.

In his first in­ter­view since he was pulled from his fifth­grade class, Esquith told The Times on Mon­day that con­tro­versy stemmed from a joke he made in the class­room.

He said he quipped with stu­dents that if he could not raise enough money for the an­nual Shake­spearean play, they would all have to per­form their parts naked like the king in Mark Twain’s “The Ad­ven­tures of Huck­le­berry Finn.”

Af­ter another teacher com­plained, he said he ex­plained the con­text of the joke to his prin­ci­pal at Ho­bart Boule­vard Ele­men­tary. The prin­ci­pal, he said, told him he had noth­ing to worry about. Nonethe­less, Esquith was re­moved from the class­room in April.

“We over­re­act to ev­ery­thing. That’s the Amer­i­can way and I’m a vic­tim of that over­re­ac­tion,” Esquith said. “I want to f ix this sys­tem. I want to make sure that teach­ers do not have to go through the same thing that I went through.”

Mark Ger­a­gos, an at­tor­ney for Esquith, filed a claim Mon­day against L. A. Uni­fied, a pre­cur­sor to a law­suit. The claim gave no­tice of class- ac­tion lit­i­ga­tion in­volv­ing scores of teach­ers in sim­i­lar sit­u­a­tions who say they have been de­nied due process rights.

Lead­ers of the teach­ers union said the num­ber of in­struc­tors pulled from class­rooms af­ter al­le­ga­tions of mis­con­duct in­creased af­ter a child abuse scan­dal at Mi­ra­monte.

Since last June, 89 teach­ers and oth­ers have been taken out of the class­room pend­ing an in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

Colleen Sch­wab, a vice pres­i­dent of United Teach­ers Los An­ge­les, said dis­trict of­fi­cials have be­come so con­cerned with mak­ing sure that they do not miss se­ri­ous crimes against chil­dren that the pen­du­lum has swung too far in the op­po­site di­rec­tion.

Sch­wab said L. A. Uni­fied and the teach­ers union reached an agree­ment in April re­quir­ing that the dis­trict present teach­ers ac­cused of mis­con­duct with the al­le­ga­tions against them and that they re­ceive speedy in­ves­ti­ga­tions.

Dis­trict of­fi­cials de­clined to pro­vide de­tails of the in­ves­ti­ga­tion, which Supt. Ra­mon Cortines said in­cludes “se­ri­ous is­sues that go be­yond the ini­tial in­ves­ti­ga­tion.”

Cortines said in a state­ment last week that the dis­trict won’t be “rushed to make a de­ci­sion and will com­plete our in­ves­ti­ga­tion with the high­est level of in­tegrity. The safety and se­cu­rity of ev­ery dis­trict stu­dent will re­main our No. 1 pri­or­ity.”

In an in­ter­view Mon­day, L. A. Uni­fied Gen­eral Coun­sel David Holmquist added that the school sys­tem will not sac­ri­fice stu­dents’ safety or a thor­ough in­ves­ti­ga­tion sim­ply be­cause the public and em­ploy­ees want a quick res­o­lu­tion.

“When it comes to stu­dent safety, we’re go­ing to choose stu­dents over adults ev­ery time,” Holmquist said.

Ed­u­ca­tion his­to­rian Diane Rav­itch who has fol­lowed the de­bate over Esquith’s re­moval, said that when such a na­tion­ally known in­struc­tor is re­moved from the class­room, the com­mu­nity ex­pects an­swers.

“If the facts of the case are what’s in public, it sounds ab­surd,” said Rav­itch, a re­search ed­u­ca­tion pro­fes­sor at New York Univer­sity. “If there are other things that haven’t been re­vealed, then the dis­trict should re­veal them so that peo­ple don’t think they’re mak­ing a very harsh and hasty de­ci­sion.”

Esquith, who has writ­ten three books, in­clud­ing “Teach Like Your Hair’s on Fire: The Meth­ods and Mad­ness In­side Room 56,” has re­ceived na­tional recog­ni­tion for his teach­ing abil­i­ties. He was the fo­cus of a PBS doc­u­men­tary and won the Na­tional Medal of Arts award in 2003. At Ho­bart, which en­rolls mostly low- in­come and mi­nor­ity stu­dents, he stresses the im­por­tance of the arts and the clas­sics, in­clud­ing Shake­speare and Twain.

He has also crit­i­cized what he con­sid­ers to be too much stan­dard­ized test­ing and scripted teach­ing meth­ods.

Esquith is be­ing paid while he awaits the re­sults of the dis­trict’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion. It is ex­pected to be com­pleted be­fore school starts in Au­gust.

He said dis­trict in­ves­ti­ga­tors never ex­plained the al­le­ga­tion of mis­con­duct lodged against him but said they were not short of ques­tions when he was in­ter­viewed. They asked, for ex­am­ple, the names of teach­ers who may not like him, the women he dated in col­lege and whether he was coun- seled as a teenager for push­ing some­one at sum­mer camp.

“I asked them, ‘ Have you talked to my stu­dents?’ and they ab­so­lutely said to me, ‘ We’re only look­ing to talk to peo­ple who don’t like you,’ ” Esquith said. “It just seemed in­cred­i­bly un­fair.”

In the claim against the dis­trict, Esquith’s at­tor­neys said the in­ves­ti­ga­tion has now turned to the Ho­bart Shake­speare­ans, which per­forms a Shake­speare play an­nu­ally, of­fers f ield trips and pro­vides free SAT prepa­ra­tion.

Board mem­bers for Esquith’s non­profit sought le­gal coun­sel af­ter in­ves­ti­ga­tors be­gan ask­ing ques­tions about per­mis­sion slips, whether the or­ga­ni­za­tion clearly in­di­cated that it was not af­fil­i­ated with the dis­trict and the num­ber of chap­er­ons taken on trips.

Dis­trict of­fi­cials this month re­quired Esquith to can­cel a trip with stu­dents to at­tend the Ore­gon Shake­speare Fes­ti­val. In a let­ter to him, of­fi­cials said the trip had not been au­tho­rized or spon­sored by L. A. Uni­fied.

“It’s clear that the ini­tial al­le­ga­tion was this Mark Twain pas­sage … they re­al­ized that they hit a dry hole on that and now they are do­ing any­thing and ev­ery­thing to come up with some­thing to jus­tify this be­cause they re­al­ize that they have egg on their face,” Ger­a­gos said.

Af­ter more than three decades teach­ing, Esquith said, he sim­ply wants to get back to the class­room to be with his stu­dents.

“I have had many friends say, ‘ You know what, Rafe: Enough is enough. Get off the cross, go into the pri­vate sec­tor and make a lot of money,’” Esquith said. “It’s tempt­ing, but you haven’t seen the dam­age done to my class­room. You haven’t seen the mail that I’ve got­ten from these kids. I have to go back to heal them.”

Anne Cu­sack Los An­ge­les Times

RAFE ESQUITH, shown in a 2005, says L. A. Uni­fied ad­min­is­tra­tors are over­re­act­ing af­ter the Mi­ra­monte scan­dal to a class­room quip he made about nu­dity.

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