Fifth-grade teacher Rafe Esquith’s worst nightmare began March 19, during a puzzling meeting in his principal’s office. Hobart Boulevard Elementary School’s principal indicated something had happened, but Esquith says that he was told he had nothing to worry about.
That was wrong. I consider Esquith to be America’s best classroom teacher. The Los Angeles educator’s annual Shakespeare productions, real-life economics lessons, advanced readings and imaginative field trips are phenomenal. Yet he has been removed from his classroom since April and told by his school district to say nothing about what is going on.
Fortunately, his attorneys have prepared a detailed account of the administrative incompetence and wrong-headedness that created this situation as Los Angeles Unified School District investigators continue to search for anything they can use against their most-celebrated teacher.
At that March meeting, according to their account, the principal told Esquith: “You have nothing to worry about. This is a bump in the road. I need to counsel you that you need to be careful what you say in front of students.” Esquith said fine, still not knowing was they were talking about. He went back to teaching and preparing for “The Winter’s Tale,” as acted, danced and musically accompanied by his students, mostly from low-income Hispanic and Korean families.
Three weeks later, Esquith learned that the district had forwarded a complaint to the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing, but the teacher still didn’t have details. Esquith said the principal told him he had nothing to worry about and that “this is about nothing.”
The next day, Esquith learned the truth: A school staffer had reported to administrators that Esquith made a joke about nudity that she thought might offend students and their parents. Esquith had read to his students a passage from “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” in which a character called the king comes “prancing out on all fours, naked.” Esquith reminded the students that the district did not fund the annual Shakespeare play, and if he could not raise enough money “we will all have to play the role of the king in Huckleberry Finn.”
Esquith was told that the district was pressuring him for an apology. Esquith wrote and signed one: “I am deeply and sincerely sorry that any comment someone heard, or thought they heard, has anyone uncomfortable.” Nonetheless, two days later, April 10, the district removed him from his classroom — giving no reason — and sent him to an office for disciplinary cases commonly known as the teacher jail. (He was later allowed to stay home, with pay.)
On May 27, the state credentialing commission rejected the district’s complaint. That same day, investigators met with Esquith and asked him bizarre questions, such as did he know any teachers who didn’t like him and which women he dated in college.
Investigators eventually said they found a man who said Esquith had abused him when he was 8 or 9, during a time when Esquith was a teenage counselor at a Jewish summer day camp. The alleged incidents happened 40 years ago. The man told the Los Angeles Times that he reported this to a Los Angeles school board member and the police in 2006, but nothing came of it. Esquith has denied wrongdoing.
Los Angeles Times reporter Howard Blume revealed recently that cases like Esquith’s had previously been left up to principals, but after a 2012 molestation scandal, the district began to suspend and investigate hundreds of teachers for even small alleged infractions.
Esquith is being treated like a Wall Street cheat. On July 8, the district’s investigators asked him for all of his tax returns, loan and bank records since 2000, giving no reason. Many other teachers being similarly targeted are asking Esquith’s lawyers for help.
This is an investigation gone rogue. If it continues, the Los Angeles school district — previously devoted to helping its students — is at risk of not only losing an exceptional teacher, but also its very soul.