LAUSD ex­pands re­view of teacher

Dis­trict in­ter­views man who says the cel­e­brated in­struc­tor abused him in ’ 70s.

Los Angeles Times - - CALIFORNIA - By Zahira Tor­res and Howard Blume

A Los An­ge­les school dis­trict in­ves­ti­ga­tion into al­le­ga­tions of mis­con­duct against cel­e­brated teacher Rafe Esquith has broad­ened to in­clude an ac­cu­sa­tion that he abused a child 40 years ago, dis­trict of­fi­cials said.

Esquith’s at­tor­ney, Mark Ger­a­gos, said the al­le­ga­tions were an at­tempt to smear the teacher.

“It’s a to­tal set- up,” Ger­a­gos said. “We’ve reached the heights of un­be­liev­able smear tac­tics.... It’s de­spi­ca­ble con­duct and we will hold them ac­count­able.”

Esquith did not re­spond

to an email re­quest­ing com­ment. His at­tor­neys said he was on a trip to China.

A long­time ed­u­ca­tor at Ho­bart Boule­vard Ele­men­tary School, Esquith has gained na­tional at­ten­tion for his teach­ing meth­ods. In April, dis­trict of­fi­cials re­moved him from the class­room as part of an in­ves­ti­ga­tion into al­leged mis­con­duct.

Dis­trict of­fi­cials said the in­quiry be­gan af­ter a teacher com­plained about a joke that Esquith made to his stu­dents in­volv­ing nu­dity. It ex­panded to in­clude an ex­am­i­na­tion of the f inances and man­age­ment of Esquith’s non­profit foun­da­tion, the Ho­bart Shake­speare­ans, which puts on an an­nual play and takes stu­dents on field trips.

This week, L. A. Uni­fied in­ves­ti­ga­tors in­ter­viewed a man who al­leged that Esquith phys­i­cally and sex­u­ally abused him in the 1970s.

David Holmquist, the dis­trict’s gen­eral coun­sel, said the al­le­ga­tions by the man, Marc Ben­nett, are “part of the over­all in­ves­ti­ga­tion.”

In an in­ter­view with The Times on Thurs­day, Ben­nett, 49, said that when he was 8 or 9, he at­tended an af­ter- school pro­gram at the West­side Jewish Com­mu­nity Cen­ter, where Esquith was em­ployed. Esquith’s at­tor­neys con­firmed that he worked at the cen­ter.

Ben­nett, who lives in New York City, de­scribed three al­leged in­ci­dents in­volv­ing Esquith.

“At that point in my life my par­ents had been di­vorced. Rafe was charis­matic and I looked up to him a bit as kind of a fa­ther f ig­ure,” Ben­nett said. “I had a fair amount of ado­ra­tion for him, but it was this re­ally weird thing where it was full of hu­mil­i­a­tion and a lot of fear. It was very chaotic.”

Ben­nett said he didn’t re­port the al­leged abuse at the time. About a decade ago, he said he learned of Esquith’s non­profit work with young chil­dren and con­tacted law en­force­ment author­i­ties. He also sent a let­ter de­scrib­ing what he’d been through to an L. A. Uni­fied board mem­ber. He couldn’t re­mem­ber the board mem­ber’s name, but he said that dis­trict in­ves­ti­ga­tors who called him this week said they had found the let­ter and asked him to re­count his story.

“My hope is that this would in­spire other peo­ple to come for­ward if there are oth­ers who have had my ex­pe­ri­ence,” Ben­nett said.

Holmquist said the dis­trict first learned of the al­le­ga­tions in 2006 and re­ported them to the Los An­ge­les Po­lice Depart­ment. No charges were filed at the time, and it’s un­clear whether the dis­trict took fur­ther ac­tion.

As part of the cur­rent in­quiry, L. A. Uni­fied of­fi­cials reached out to the LAPD about Ben­nett’s claims, Holmquist said.

Esquith’s at­tor­neys f iled a claim with the dis­trict this week al­leg­ing that the teacher’s rights have been vi­o­lated and his rep­u­ta­tion sul­lied. Ac­cord­ing to the claim, in­ves­ti­ga­tors asked Esquith dur­ing an in­ter­view in May about his time at the JCC. Ac­cord­ing to the doc­u­ment, one ques­tion was: “Were you ever coun­seled for push­ing some­one when you were a camp coun­selor at the JCC Jewish Cen­ter Sum­mer Camp you worked at when you were a teenager 40 years ago?”

Esquith’s an­swer was no, ac­cord­ing to one of his at­tor­neys. It is un­clear whether the ques­tion refers to Ben­nett’s al­le­ga­tions or a sep­a­rate in­ci­dent.

In an in­ter­view with The Times ear­lier this week, Esquith de­scribed the in­ves­ti­ga­tion as an over­re­ac­tion to a quip in which he cited a pas­sage from Mark Twain’s “The Ad­ven­tures of Huck­le­berry Finn.”

Esquith said he joked with stu­dents that if he could not raise enough money for the an­nual Shake­speare play, ev­ery­one would have to per­form their parts naked like the king in the book.

Ger­a­gos has ac­cused school of­fi­cials of drag­ging out the in­ves­ti­ga­tion af­ter fail­ing to f ind any wrong­do­ing.

Supt. Ra­mon Cortines de­clined to pro­vide de­tails about the probe but said that it in­cluded “se­ri­ous is­sues that go be­yond the ini­tial in­ves­ti­ga­tion.”

Dis­trict sources, who spoke on the con­di­tion that they would not be iden­ti­fied, said that un­til re­cently, the probe has fo­cused mostly on the teacher’s f ield trips and his foun­da­tion, which is not af­fil­i­ated with L. A. Uni­fied. Dis­trict in­ves­ti­ga­tors have tried to ex­am­ine how the foun­da­tion col­lects and uses its fund­ing, the sources said.

The Ho­bart Shake­speare­ans raised nearly $ 435,000 in 2013, ac­cord­ing to the non­profit’s most re­cent fed­eral f inan­cial dis­clo­sure forms. Nei­ther Esquith nor his board are paid, ac­cord­ing to the fil­ing.

Beatrice de Gea Los An­ge­les Times

RAFE ESQUITH is the tar­get of “smear tac­tics” by the school dis­trict, his lawyer says.

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