Tag Archives: Rafe Esquith

L.A. Unified’s ‘teacher jail’ policy ends up punishing students

Teacher-Jail-700In 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.

via Los Angeles Times

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L.A. district continues to persecute one of the nation’s best teachers

Merlin_655829In this 2003 file photo, Rafe Esquith, a fifth-grade teacher at Hobart Elementary School in Los Angeles, leads an innovative after-school group in his classroom. (Jonathan Alcorn/For The Washington Post)

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.

via Washington Post 

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‘Most famous’ teacher plans class action suit over LAUSD’s ‘teacher jail’.

Rafe-EquithRafe Esquith

If opponents of LA Unified’s controversial disciplinary process known as “teacher jail” were looking for an ideal case to fight it, both in a court of law and in the court of public opinion, they may get it.

High-profile attorney Mark Geragos, representing one of the most famous active teachers in the country, Rafe Esquith, told the Los Angeles Times he intends to file a class action lawsuit on behalf of “scores” of district teachers who say they have been denied due process rights. Geragos said he had filed a legal claim on Monday, which is a precursor to a lawsuit.

The lawsuit could have enormous implications for the district, given the public stature of Esquith, who is a best-selling author, and Geragos, who has represented numerous celebrities and high-profile clients, including Michael Jackson, Winona Ryder and convicted killer Scott Peterson.

Geragos did not state how many teachers may be a part of the possible suit and did not respond to a request for comment. LA Unified General Counsel David Holmquist said in an email to LA School Report that “you would have to talk to [Esquith’s] attorney about his plans for a class action suit to determine if he believes it is a precursor.”

The district has not publicly released any information on the case so far, other than Superintendent Ramon Cortines‘ saying the investigation had raised “serious issues.”

Esquith told the Times that he was put under investigation in April and removed from the classroom for making a joke that referenced a passage from the novel “Huckleberry Finn.” He said he told his class they may have to perform nude like a character in the story if he wasn’t able to raise enough funds, and that another teacher complained about it.

Esquith acknowledged making the joke, and Geragos said that was the extent of the original complaint against him but the district’s investigation expanded to focus on Esquith’s nonprofit, the Hobart Shakespeareans, including its process of permission slips, chaperons and whether it makes clear it is not affiliated with the district, the Times reported.

Esquith is an author of several books on teaching and has worked at Hobart Avenue Elementary School for decades. He has received national recognition for his work with his nonprofit, which raises money for his students to put on Shakespeare plays. His work has been profiled by PBS, the CBS Evening News, Time, People and other national outlets. Washington Post education columnist Valerie Strauss described him as “the most famous teacher in the world.”

Esquith’s case is thrusting the issue of “teacher jail” into the spotlight once again, where it has been numerous times since the Miramonte Elementary sex abuse scandal broke in 2011 and former teacher Mark Berndt was ultimately convicted of multiple counts of committing lewd acts on his students. The Miramonte case also led to the district’s record-breaking $170 million in civil lawsuit payouts.

In the aftermath of the scandal, the LA teachers union, UTLA, complained that the district began investigating teachers at a much higher rate. Hundreds of teachers, sometimes more than 300, have been reported to be barred from the classroom at a time in recent years.

Teachers can fall under investigation for anything from serious accusation of sexual misconduct to a simple violation of district policies. The district used to house all teachers under investigation in administrative offices during working hours, and they were often often given nothing to do, which gave rise to the “teacher jail” term. In 2014, the district switched policy and began sending most of the teachers home, but the term has come to often apply to any teacher that is barred from the classroom with pay while the district investigates them.

The investigations can take months, and teachers are often not informed of the accusations against them. UTLA made the district’s disciplinary process an issue in its negations for a new contract agreement, reached in April, that calls for the district to give teachers under investigation more rights.

“The teacher jail issues, which ballooned under Deasy, was a huge part of our contract negotiations and we got first-time contract language, making sure due process is followed, and time limits are followed in investigations,” UTLA President Alex Caputo-Pearl told LA School Report. “So we want to make sure that the district is following those very common sense guidelines that are now contractual  language. We want to make sure that they’re following them in this case of Rafe Esquith.”

Caputo-Pearl did say that the speed of teacher investigations has improved under new Superintendent Ramon Cortines.

“Cortines, to his credit, has worked with us on a number of different cases where we were able to cut through some red tape,” Caputo-Pearl said.


Vanessa Romo contributed reporting to this story.

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