Updated with response from Esquith’s lawyers

Rafe Esquith may have collected more accolades over the years than any other teacher in America. His honors include Disney’s Outstanding Teacher of the Year Award, the National Medal of Arts and Oprah Winfrey’s $100,000 “Use Your Life Award.”

A fifth-grade teacher of three decades at Hobart Boulevard Elementary School in the Los Angeles Unified School District, the gregarious Esquith, 61, was known for devoting long hours to his classes, comprised largely of low-income immigrant children from in and around Los Angeles’s Koreatown neighborhood, and pioneering innovative teaching methods that he popularized in acclaimed books.

This sterling record led The Washington Post’s education columnist Jay Mathews to proclaim Esquith “America’s Best Classroom Teacher” in 2007.

But this year has seen Esquith embroiled in a controversy with the Los Angeles Unified School District — one that continues to unfold and which threatens to attach a far more nefarious set of labels to Esquith’s name.

Esquith was removed from his classroom in April and subsequently terminated in October after an investigation was launched into allegations of misconduct. It started with a complaint about a nudity joke that Esquith made to his students, but has since ballooned to include a slate of other allegations about inappropriate behavior, often of a sexual nature, in a school setting.

New documents released by L.A. Unified late Tuesday to The Washington Post and first reported by the Los Angeles Times extensively detail years of allegations against Esquith, starting from when he was still a teenager working with schoolchildren at the Westside Jewish Community Center. Most of the allegations deal with Esquith’s time at Hobart, including snippets of innuendo-laden email messages he allegedly sent to female students no older than 14.

Esquith’s lawyers, Mark Geragos and Ben Meiselas, responded Wednesday to The Post’s earlier request for comment, calling the allegations “discredited and baseless” and saying they had been “cherry picked …. No student, or parent, to this day, has ever made any allegation against Mr. Esquith …. The school district instead invaded the homes and colleges of these students demanding that they say something negative about Mr. Esquith and threatening to return if they did not.” Their entire response can be viewed here. 

According to the Los Angeles Times, which originally reported the story, Geragos sent L.A. Unified a letter prior to the document release accusing the district of generating a “fraudulent narrative” and calling the documents L.A. Unified’s “latest effort to smear.”

After he was terminated in October, Esquith filed a $1 billion class-action lawsuit on behalf of nearly 2,000 teachers against the district. The complaint alleges that  L.A. Unified practices age discrimination by disproportionately removing teachers nearing retirement age from their classrooms and placing them in a kind of administrative limbo Esquith calls “teacher jail” in an effort to compel them to resign without receiving a full pension and health benefits.

Though Esquith has not been charged with any crimes, the teacher presented in the school district’s 66 pages of documents and records bears little resemblance to the one beloved by the public: a generous man who nurtured a love of learning in his students and compelled them to be moved to tears by “Huckleberry Finn,” as shown in a 2005 documentary about his annual class Shakespeare productions.

The documentary portrayed Esquith as “a genius and a saint,” as the New York Times explained when the film aired on PBS. Now L.A. Unified contends the legendary teacher is something quite different.

From 2008 to 2015, the L.A. Unified documents claim, Esquith inappropriately touched female students, made sexual jokes to students and kept his 5th grade students after school to watch movies depicting nudity and sexual intercourse.

The most disturbing allegations, however, come in the form of emails that Esquith supposedly sent to adolescent former students.

“Hey beautiful…another terrific day…hope you are getting ready for a sleepover,” the teacher allegedly wrote to a 14-year-old former student. The documents claim that Esquith maintained a frequent correspondence with the student for over a year starting in 2012, writing from a district-issued computer using a personal email address.

The messages were laced with sexual suggestiveness. “You’re soooooooooooo fine,” Esquith allegedly wrote. “You are stuck with me forever!”

The female student, who at one point wrote, “I’m not lusting,” expressed confusion in many of her responses, and insisted that she was not interested in dating anyone at her age. To these protestations, Esquith allegedly said, “You know many things, and are a fabulous student. But you do not understand men and their wants and desires. You are their dream come true.”

According to the documents, Esquith maintained similar communications with other students over the years, and on several occasions alluded to giving them money to cover various expenses. In emails to a 13-year-old former student, he allegedly signed off as “Your favorite ATM.” He also told the student, whom he addressed as “Supermodel,” that he would cover the cost of her uniforms and additional classes.

“It sounds like books/uniforms/classes will run about 1800,” Esquith wrote, the documents claim. “…I don’t get to relax, but seeing your pretty face is even better! Do not worry about movies and giving them back. Just enjoy and know I love you.”

In another email, he purportedly asked, “How is my favorite Hottie?”

The documents also include allegations from former students — now adults — who recalled that Esquith fondled two boys and two girls in the 1970s and 1990s. One man stated that while babysitting him as a 9-year-old, Esquith rubbed his genitals, punched him and slammed his head against the floor, threatening to kill his mother if the child told anyone about the incident.

Another man reported a similar encounter while Esquith was babysitting him. According to the man, who was 8 years old at the time, Esquith told him to sleep naked and squeezed his penis in the middle of the night.

L.A. Unified has expanded its investigation to include a look at the Hobart Shakespeareans, a nonprofit run by Esquith that funds his class’s annual play and field trips to Washington, D.C., Mississippi, New York and Yosemite National Park.

According to the Hobart Shakespeareans website, all the children at Hobart qualify for free breakfast and lunch, and few speak English as a first language (the school is predominantly Asian and Latino). “Many are from poor or troubled families,” the site says.

Sir Ian McKellan, the renowned Shakespeare actor, has made visits to Esquith’s class and joined in their readings.

“You can’t watch the little actors without wanting to cry,” McKellan is quoted saying on Hobart Shakespeareans page. “Why do you cry? I suppose it’s happiness, really, and a regret that not all the children in the world could have a Rafe Esquith for a teacher.”

In contrast to his public image and reputation, L.A. Unified’s documents paint a portrait of Esquith as quick to offer cash to his low-income students in order to win their favor and, in some cases, have something to hold over them.

In one email exchange with a 14-year-old former student, Esquith appears to be accusing another former student of being ungrateful for receiving financial help from him in the past.

He wrote, according to the document:

I saw J[redacted name] walking down Harvard with H[redacted name]. J, who…I got a full scholarship to Willows. Paid her hospital bill when she was hurt. Paid for 2 years of drum lessons. Took to Ashland, Washington DC, and Idaho. Spent two years of Saturdays teaching her. Took to the Magic Castle. Took to Disneyland twice for 3 days. I called out, ‘Hi J!’ And she ran away.

L.A. Unified also cites fellow teachers at Hobart who say they witnessed Esquith engaging in inappropriate behavior. Jay Gowan, a fourth-grade teacher, allegedly walked in on Esquith tickling his female students. Esquith stopped after he noticed Gowan. Another time, Gowan witnessed Esquith point to one of his female students and say that she “loved green M&Ms because they made her horny.”

Back in April, Esquith described his removal from his classroom at Hobart as an injustice. “We overreact to everything,” he told the L.A. Times this past summer. “That’s the American way and I’m a victim of that overreaction. I want to fix this system.”

His supporters — including students, parents and teachers — were outraged that he had been taken out of the classroom, holding rallies in which they invoked a mantra that Esquith taught them: “Be nice, work hard! Reinstate Rafe!”

This was before specific details of L.A. Unified’s investigation surfaced. The documents released this week under the California Public Records Act are the most comprehensive account of the allegations against Esquith to date.

L.A. Unified has recently handled multiple cases of sexual misconduct from teachers and administrators, paying $139 million last year to victims at Miramonte Elementary School after the accused teacher was allowed to stay in the classroom.