In 2012, the entire 110-member staff of Miramonte Elementary School was pulled off campus after accusations of molestation were leveled at two teachers. Mark Berndt pleaded no contest to charges involving feeding semen-laced cookies to blindfolded students; charges against the second teacher were ultimately dropped (and he has since left the district). Everyone else spent the rest of the school year cooling their heels in a new, not-yet-opened school.
John Deasy, who was then superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District, justified the move by saying he was concerned there might be a culture of sexual abuse at Miramonte. All staff files were scrutinized. But in only a couple of cases were there previous allegations of abuse; a few other teachers were found to have broken minor, unrelated rules, and most of the staff returned to Miramonte the following year.
At first this looked like nothing more than an honest effort to protect children, after Miramonte administrators had rebuffed earlier complaints. But it was the start of a troubling series of teacher suspensions at other schools that disrupted students’ education and that notably did not involve their safety. These suspensions with pay during often lengthy investigations are known as “teacher jail”; teachers largely spend the time at home while substitutes who often are less qualified take their places.
With classes beginning Aug. 18, the many admirers of Hobart Elementary teacher Rafe Esquith are wondering whether he’ll be there to greet a new batch of fifth-graders after four months in teacher jail. His case, and those of others before him, raise troubling questions about whether the teacher investigation system is causing too much disruption at L.A. Unified schools.
In 2014, two beloved teachers at separate high schools were reassigned to teacher jail for eight months over allegations of possible financial improprieties involving field trips. Both were finally returned to the classroom. That was also the year that a popular science teacher, who taught at the arts high school named for Supt. Ramon C. Cortines, was yanked from the classroom because two students had designed projects for a science fair that appeared to a couple of people as too similar to weaponry. (One project, a standard at science fairs across the country, was a milder version of a catapult-like invention that President Obama had tried out and praised at a White House science fair.) While he was in limbo, the teacher missed out on one of the most important months of the school year — the period of intense preparation for the Advanced Placement tests — replaced by a substitute who didn’t know the material.
But none of those teachers had the national reputation of Esquith. He has written three books on inspired pedagogy and has improved students’ English skills by getting them excited about staging Shakespeare plays. He pays for their productions with a nonprofit that also funds student field trips to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, which were canceled this year because of the investigation.
The trouble started, according to accounts given to Times reporters, with a mild joke about nudity based on a passage in “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”; Esquith was then removed from the classroom in April when the investigation expanded into whether there were financial irregularities with his nonprofit. Yet later, according to reports, the investigation came to focus on allegations that Esquith had molested a boy some 40 years earlier, when he was a teenage camp counselor — an allegation that the district had been aware of for years.
Of course the district has a right, and an obligation, to investigate molestation accusations and remove possibly abusive teachers when allegations arise. But as currently practiced, the procedure appears to turn too many easily resolved cases into administrative quagmires. Why not just tell the science teacher that science fair projects shouldn’t look like weapons? End of story.
By all means, investigate when necessary. But L.A. Unified should not overreact by removing teachers over allegations that have nothing to do with student safety. The district must put student welfare first, and their welfare is not served by disrupting the school year. It’s time for an independent examination by the district’s Office of the Inspector General.