(Update: Adding comment from school district)
Rafe Esquith, a world-famous elementary school teacher and best-selling author, just filed a $1 billion (that’s billion) class-action lawsuit against the Los Angeles Unified School District, which removed him from his class earlier this year and has now reportedly fired him.
The lawsuit was filed by his attorney, Mark Geragos, on behalf of some 2,000 teachers in the Los Angeles school district. The suit says they were wrongly removed from their classrooms without clearly stated reasons and sent to an administrative office, known as “teacher jail,” pending investigations into their behavior. The suit alleges that the teachers’ rights were violated and and that they were each deprived of half a million dollars in pension and health benefits by being forced to resign or being fired, the Los Angeles Times reported. It seeks an end to “teacher jail.”
This past March, Esquith was ordered out of Room 56 at Hobart Elementary School after a colleague reported to the principal that he had told a joke about nudity in Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” The district, which had formed a team of investigators last year after a series of sex abuse scandals, started a probe into Esquith. The allegations grew to include financial mismanagement of his Shakespeare non-profit, that he had inappropriately touched minors, and that inappropriate photographs and e-mails were found on his school computer. Esquith has denied all of the allegations.
The Los Angeles Times reported that the Board of Education met on Tuesday and voted to fire him.
Esquith, a father of four and grandfather of two, taught at Hobart, a high-poverty elementary school, for more than 30 years. He became well known for a Shakespeare program he ran in which all of his students appeared in at least one full-length production a year. It became so well known that a documentary, “The Hobart Shakespeareans,” was made.
Esquith wrote best-selling books, too, including “Teach Like Your Hair’s on Fire: The Methods and Madness Inside Room 56,” and his fame spread. On trips to China, he has needed security guards to protect him from crowds. He is the only K-12 teacher to be awarded the president’s National Medal of the Arts. Queen Elizabeth made him a member of the British Empire. The Dalai Lama gave him the Compassion in Action Award. He has won the Kennedy Center’s Sondheim Inspirational Teacher Award , Oprah Winfrey’s Use Your Life Award, and Disney’s National Outstanding Teacher of the Year award, etc.
Geragos was quoted as saying at a news conference on Thursday:
“They have what I would charitably call an investigative hit squad that goes out and basically intimidates and tries to extract statements from students that they then use for kangaroo-court style proceedings in order to get people to resign so that they don’t vest with their retirement benefits.”
Shannon Haber, the district’s director of communications and media relations, said in an e-mail: “Our response is that we are still reviewing the lawsuit and therefore cannot comment further at this time.”
The probe began after Esquith was reported on by a fellow teacher for making a joke in class, according to this account by my Post colleague Jay Mathews, who has written extensively on Esquith:
Esquith was rehearsing his students for this year’s play and reading from a section of Huckleberry Finn about the duke and the king, merry actors who provide some of the book’s comedy. The Room 56 students were practicing Shakespeare, not Twain, but Esquith thought the passage was relevant. In one performance, Esquith read, “the king came prancing out on all fours, naked. He was painted in rings and stripes all over in all sorts of colors and looked as splendid as a rainbow.”
Meiselas [Ben Meiselas, an attorney from Geragos’ firm] said Esquith said if he couldn’t raise enough support for the annual play, he guessed the class would have to similarly perform naked.
Esquith was joking. He does that a lot, as anyone who knows him has long been aware of. The school district has provided no significant funds for the annual play and Esquith’s many field trips and other projects, but his work has attracted many wealthy and influential supporters, so he was not expressing a real worry. The Shakespearean plays are very low-budget, since they are done in his small classroom with the audience on risers and the many musical instruments mostly donated.
(Correction: Fixing the name of the documentary made about Esquith)