The Rafe Esquith mys­tery

Los Angeles Times - - OPINION -

If there’s any­thing more fa­mous about ed­u­ca­tor Rafe Esquith than his best­sellers on ped­a­gogy and the way he in­stilled a love of Shake­speare in his stu­dents, it’s his dis­missal from the class­room for al­legedly in­ap­pro­pri­ate be­hav­ior with cur­rent and former stu­dents, fol­lowed by his ter­mi­na­tion.

His many sup­port­ers, in­clud­ing ac­tor Ian McKellen, vil­i­fied Los An­ge­les Unified School Dis­trict for what they called venge­ful re­sent­ment of Esquith’s un­will­ing­ness to con­form. Early re­ports were that Esquith came un­der sus­pi­cion be­cause of a mild joke about nu­dity to his stu­dents, mak­ing his abrupt de­par­ture from the class­room look like an over­re­ac­tion. But later, many re­coiled when the dis­trict re­leased ex­cerpts of some of Esquith’s emails to cur­rent and former stu­dents, es­pe­cially teenage girls. He used terms like “hot­tie” and “sexy” and wrote about maybe try­ing out his spank­ing skills on a 14-year-old whom he was look­ing for­ward to see­ing.

The pas­sages cer­tainly didn’t look savory, but with both sides giv­ing out in­for­ma­tion se­lec­tively, there was no way to know what was re­ally go­ing on. It would take the full facts for the public to un­ravel an enigma that roiled the dis­trict for months.

And now, it ap­pears those facts and that un­der­stand­ing will never be forth­com­ing. The dis­trict has set­tled the law­suits Esquith brought against it, mak­ing mi­nor con­ces­sions such as restor­ing his re­tiree health ben­e­fits and agree­ing to pro­vide ac­cused teach­ers with coun­sel­ing and writ­ten in­for­ma­tion about their le­gal rights.

Had the dis­trict run amok with its in­ves­ti­ga­tions of teach­ers af­ter the Mi­ra­monte Ele­men­tary School case, in which dis­trict em­ploy­ees ig­nored re­peated and jus­ti­fied com­plaints about a teacher’s sex­ual abuse of stu­dents? That’s not an idle ques­tion. Af­ter all, the dis­trict has been too quick on oc­ca­sion to re­move teach­ers from the class­room who rep­re­sented no threat to stu­dents. Just this week, an ar­bi­tra­tion panel ruled that of­fi­cials had wrongly rep­ri­manded a teacher at the Cortines School of Vis­ual and Per­form­ing Arts, who’d been pe­nal­ized in 2014 over sci­ence-fair projects that they deemed too weapon-like. Both were com­mon sci­ence-project fare. The teacher was re­turned to the class­room two months later but had to go to ar­bi­tra­tion to have the rep­ri­mand scrubbed from his record.

In Esquith’s case, there is no sat­is­fy­ing res­o­lu­tion for the public. It’s un­clear whether stu­dents un­fairly lost one of the most in­spir­ing teach­ers in the na­tion or were pro­tected from a pos­si­ble preda­tor.

More im­por­tant, what are the lessons learned here, and how should the dis­trict change its poli­cies — or should it re­tain them? Both Esquith’s sup­port­ers and de­trac­tors de­serve to know, but chances are they never will.

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