A close-up look at NYC education policy, politics,and the people who have been, are now, or will be affected by acts of corruption and fraud. ATR CONNECT assists individuals who suddenly find themselves in the ATR ("Absent Teacher Reserve") pool and are the "new" rubber roomers, and re-assigned. The terms "rubber room" and "ATR" mean that you or any person has been targeted for removal from your job. A "Rubber Room" is not a place, but a process.
I consider Rafe Esquith of the Hobart Boulevard Elementary School in Los Angeles to be the best classroom teacher in the country. So when I learned that he has been barred from teaching since March for telling a joke about nudity in Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” I wondered if the education world had finally, inalterably, gone crazy.
I have written many columns about Esquith. There are several chapters about him in my book “Work Hard. Be Nice.” He teaches fifth graders from mostly Hispanic and Korean families in a low-income part of the city. No where else have I seen such depth or imagination in a public school classroom.
Rafe Esquith is seen in thisfilephoto with his 5th grade class. He has been barred from teaching while school district officials investigate claims of misconduct. (Jonathan Alcorn/For The Washington Post)
Every year his students produce and perform a Shakespeareplay. His students love him. Their parents love him. Teachers from around the country visit Room 56 to see him and his kids in action. He has won many awards. He has published four very good books, and he is a superstar in China, where teaching is taken much more seriously than it is here.
Yet the Los Angeles Unified School District is still investigating him for what they apparently consider possibly inappropriate words in his classroom, even though the accusations have already been found without merit by the California Commission on Teacher Credentials. His attorney says he is just one of hundreds of teachers who have been send off to a district administrative office, known widely as the teacher jail, without any formal charges to wait for results of investigations that often have no merit and are hard to understand.
Superintendent Ramon C. Cortinesdeclined to address details about the case, but in a statement released Friday afternoon, he indicated that the school district is exploring “serious issues.”
“This is a very complex issue,” Cortines said. “While I respect that this teacher is extremely popular – and has been for some time – in the briefings that have been given to me, there are serious issues that go beyond the initial investigation. The Los Angeles Unified School District will not be rushed to make a decision and will complete our investigation with the highest level of integrity. The safety and security of every District student will remain our number one priority.”
I have known Cortines for 30 years and consider him a good guy. But it would have been nice if his lawyers had shared with Esquith what those serious issues are, since they have had the case for three months.
Esquith told me in March there was trouble. Like many other fans of the annual Hobart Shakespeareans dramatic production, I received a notice then that this year’s performance had been canceled. When I e-mailed him, he told me it was a serious situation and he could not tell me more. He asked me to hold off writing anything until he could speak freely.
According to Meiselas, Esquith was rehearsing with 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 said Esquith quipped that 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.
But a teacher who was in the room took him seriously, reported this to the principal and the principal reported it to the district. From there on, Meiselas said, the district has been conducting an open-ended investigation with no apparent charges and no due process for Esquith. No child has complained. No parent has complained. The teacher who made the first report e-mailed him in April to say “I just want you to know that I am here for you . . . and I wish you the best resolution possible!”
Esquith’s lawyers have told the district to publicly apologize and let him return to work or be sued. Meiselas said district officials pulled some of Esquith’s students out of class and questioned them intensely about what Esquith had said and anything he might have done to them, without first seeking the permission of their parents. Meiselas said the students were extremely upset, as were the parents.
Esquith was sent to the teacher’s jail for two months, and then allowed to await the end of the investigation at home, with pay. The district has indicated there may be no conclusion to its process until August, according to the Los Angeles Times.
The questions being asked and the letters Esquith has received indicate the district is now intent on killing off some of theprogramsand trips that make his class so good. A district official wrote to tell him his students’ annual summer trip to Oregon for the Shakespearean Theatrical Festival must be canceled. He was told to report his students’ contact addresses so their parents can be informed that “the trip is not authorized or sponsored by the District.”
This is the way they treat one of the most famous and conscientious teachers in the country, who has worked 12-hour days for several decades, usually keeping his classroom open during summer, holidays and on some weekends. Hundreds of former students come to visit. He advises many of them on how to get into the best high schools and how to prepare for college. He asks everyone to call him “Rafe.” The main page of the school’s official Web site says it is “The Proud Home of Rafe Esquith and the Hobart Shakespeareans.”
There are no suggestions that he has harmed any children. But as many of the great teachers I have written about over the years have told me, if you work hard and show administrators how much better our schools could be if they took their responsibilities seriously, you are going to become a target for abuse.
I have witnessed many outrages by school districts, but this might be the worst yet.
Los Angeles Unified teacher Rafe Esquith, a popular teacher at Hobart Elementary School, was removed from his classroom in March and is awaiting the results of a school district’s investigation. (Credit: Anne Cusack / Los Angeles Times)
LAUSD Says Investigation Into Allegations Against Popular Teacher Will Not be Rushed
Without providing more details about the allegations against a nationally recognized teacher, the leader of Los Angeles Unified said the district will not rush an investigation into why the instructor was removed from the classroom simply because of his popularity.
Supt. Ramon C. Cortinessaid the probe into allegations of misconduct against longtime Hobart Boulevard Elementary School teacher Rafe Esquith is “very complex” and must be handled carefully.
“While I respect that this teacher is extremely popular — and has been for some time — in the briefings that have been given to me, there are serious issues that go beyond the initial investigation,” Cortines said in a statement.
He added, “The Los Angeles Unified School District will not be rushed to make a decision and will complete our investigation with the highest level of integrity. The safety and security of every district student will remain our number one priority.”
Sometimes, Scot Graham says, even the deepest secrets have to come out.
That's the reason the Los Angeles Unified leasing chief is suing retired Superintendent Ramon Cortines, alleging incidents of sexual misconduct going back more than a decade.
It's the rationale for the $10 million claim he's filed against the school district, accusing officials of defaming and failing to protect him.
And it's why Graham is speaking out for the first time since he was thrust into the public eye by LAUSD officials as they rebutted Graham's allegations against Cortines and the district and tried to prevent the accusations from erupting into a scandal.
During a candid interview this month at his West Hollywood condominium, Graham provided a context for understanding his friendship with Cortines, and his rationale for challenging the power structure of the nation's second-largest school district.
The two were introduced by a mutual friend in San Francisco in the late 1980s -- a time when the AIDS epidemic was exploding and most gay men kept their sexual orientation secret and socialized only among themselves.
Graham, the great-grandson of the founder of the Sears department store chain, was in his late 20s and a successful commercial developer.
"I was leading a secret life," said Graham, now 56. "It was awful, horrible. Gays didn't socialize with the straights, so people stayed in the closet. People were afraid to touch or be around gay people."
Cortines had been hired in 1986 as superintendent of San Francisco's school system. He was well-known within the gay community, Graham said, but carefully concealed his sexual orientation from the public.
Alienated from his own family because of his sexual orientation, Graham turned to "Ray" as a friend and confidant. Cortines, he said, wanted a different sort of relationship.
"He really pursued me, but I never showed any interest," Graham said.
"He was an older, gay man and I was really struggling. I did talk to him a lot about the fact that this AIDS crisis was devastating to go through ... It was emotional hell."
At one point, he told Cortines about his desire to find a more purposeful profession than building and leasing skyscrapers. Graham's family was very involved in education in his hometown of Phoenix, and he hoped for a similar mission.
"What I'd tell Ray was, 'I'm making all this money and I have this kind of glamorous job, but I couldn't care less. I am so hollow inside. I have no center. I'm so unhappy.'
"And so I did tell him that if he ever thought of anything that was meaningful, to let me know."
Graham eventually went to work for a Japanese development company that transferred him to Los Angeles in 1992. He desperately hoped that things would be different.
"After those horrible, dark, depressing years in San Francisco, I was going to live life happier," he said. "I went on a 10-year binge of living life the way I thought you were supposed to live it in Los Angeles."
That meant luxury homes in the Hollywood Hills, extravagant trips, and parties with rich and famous friends -- enviable experiences that still left him unfulfilled.
"I had made money but had not made a difference," Graham said.
Offered spiritual sustenance
In March 2000, he heard from Cortines, who was midway through a six-month stint as interim chief of LAUSD. Graham, who graduated with honors from Stanford and has an MBA from UCLA, said the superintendent called to offer him a job.
"'I've got the perfect thing, that takes advantage of your skills, and you'll find spiritual sustenance,"' Graham recalled Cortines saying. "And I said, 'Where? When?' And I thought it was God's answer."
Documents obtained under a Public Records Act request show that Graham began working as LAUSD's director of real estate on July 2, 2000.
Although district officials maintain that Graham received no preferential treatment, he said he never had to interview or even submit a resume before he was hired to the $150,000-a-year job.
Graham did have to take a significant pay cut but felt there would be an emotional payoff in working for the district. That changed, he said, within the first few days of Cortines offering him the job.
According to the lawsuit Graham filed last month, Cortines took him to dinner at the Water Grill and the two returned afterward to LAUSD headquarters. There, the suit said, Cortines groped him and asked him to have sex in the superintendent's office.
When Graham refused, Cortines told him "it was the least he could do" for getting him the job, according to the lawsuit. Graham rebuffed Cortines' advances, but feared that Cortines would retaliate.
"I was so ashamed," Graham said in the interview. "It was just so, so humiliating, and I didn't know who to tell or what to tell."
The district released a statement from Cortines in May, in which he denied that he had sexually harassed Graham at any time. His attorney said last week that Cortines stood by that statement.
Graham said he kept the incident with Cortines secret for years but eventually confided in a friend -- a conversation the woman confirmed recently to the Daily News.
"In an instant, your world changes," Graham said. "I used to be so self-confident and I believed I could do anything. And (then) I started to stutter. I couldn't sleep ... And also the fear that I couldn't tell anybody because it was such a good ol' boy system."
Job, love life turn around
By 2003, Graham said, he wanted to correct the situation Cortines had created. His job as real estate director entailed condemning properties for the district's multibillion-dollar school construction program, and Graham didn't feel qualified.
"I kept on saying to them, 'You hired the wrong guy. I don't know a thing about eminent domain ... My colleagues said, 'How did you get this job?' I said, 'Ray."'
At the time, there was another Real Estate Branch official whose title was director of real estate and asset management. According to Graham, officials spun off the job of leasing and asset management director, which he secured after following protocol in applying, testing and interviewing for the post.
"I love my job, I love being of service," he said. "There are very, very few people who understand that the survival of the school district depends on how well it's managed."
Graham's personal life also improved. In August 2004, he met Mark Bryant at a week-long yoga retreat in Hawaii. They wed a year later in Canada, and their marriage was among those validated later by a court ruling on Proposition 8.
Cortines returned to Los Angeles Unified as deputy superintendent in mid-May 2008, and he was promoted to the top spot in 2009. Over the next three years, he slashed $1.5 billion from the budget and laid off 2,700 teachers and 4,900 other employees as he dealt with a deepening financial crisis.
Terrified that Scot could lose his job, Graham and Bryant fostered a friendship with Cortines.
They had lunch with him at a restaurant near Cortines' Pasadena home. And in the the summer of 2009, Graham and Bryant accepted Cortines' invitation to "the ranch," a second home he owned in Tulare County.
Graham and Bryant said it was a pleasant weekend, that Cortines was a cordial host and everyone seemed to settle into their natural roles.
"I felt like I'd set the boundaries, that he knew we were together," said Bryant, who works as a therapist at a drug- and alcohol-rehabilitation center in Malibu. "I never had any strong feelings from him that he would usurp that. I never felt uncomfortable with Scot being there by himself ever ...
"I respected Ray," Bryant said, "but knew the power he had with Scot's job."
Weekend at the ranch
Cortines asked the couple to the ranch again on July 23, 2010, two days after he announced plans to retire and the day after his 78th birthday.
Bryant had a scheduling conflict. Graham couldn't find anyone else to go with him but feared retaliation if he refused Cortines' invitation.
According to Graham's lawsuit, Cortines made unwanted sexual advances during a walk they took after dinner that Friday.
Later, the suit said, Cortines came nude to Graham's bedroom -- which didn't have a lock -- and tried repeatedly to engage Scot in sex. Cortines then masturbated beside Graham, who lay "frozen from fear and shock," the suit said.
Cortines repeated the same activity on Saturday night, and made additional advances on Sunday morning, according to the suit. Graham fended Cortines off, but felt trapped, helpless and fearful for his safety, the suit said.
Graham said he tried to call Bryant, but couldn't get cellphone service and Cortines wouldn't let him near the only land-line phone. They'd driven up in the superintendent's car, and Cortines refused to take him home until Sunday.
On the four-hour drive back to L.A., Graham said, "I didn't say a word."
Property records show that Cortines sold the ranch in June.
Graham left 'distraught'
Once home, Graham told Bryant it had been "a terrible weekend" but didn't elaborate. Graham said he was worried about disrupting Bryant's studies, or that Bryant would act out against Cortines and jeopardize his job with the district.
He began seeing a therapist, but his health and work suffered, Graham said. In August 2010, he took his allegations to John Creer, an outside consultant who was his supervisor on a number of projects.
In a phone interview this month, Creer confirmed that Graham had spoken to him about the weekend and that he was "distraught."
Because Creer was an outside contractor, he suggested that Graham talk to James Sohn, who was then head of the Facilities Division.
Sohn no longer works for the district. However, in a phone interview last week, he confirmed that Graham reported his allegations in August, and said Scot "asked me very, very clearly to keep it as a private conversation."
According to the suit, Graham said Sohn was bound by district policy to report the allegations.
"Despite his duty to report and investigate employee complaints of sexual harassment, Sohn did not report the incident to the LAUSD or any other governmental entity," Graham alleges in his lawsuit.
Graham complained again to Sohn in September 2010, after Cortines called Graham at home and "made sexually suggestive remarks," the suit said.
According to Sohn, "I felt the allegations were worthy of elevating to a level above me ... He didn't really ask me to and I didn't tell him I was going to, but I felt I had the responsibility to report it."
At that point, Sohn went to General Counsel David Holmquist, who summoned Graham to his office on Oct. 13, 2010. Holmquist is the district's lead attorney and reports directly to the superintendent and the school board.
According to the lawsuit, Graham described his weekend in graphic detail, then asked Holmquist about the potential fallout of seeking an investigation into Cortines. He also expressed concern about retaliation if his allegations became public.
In his lawsuit, Graham said Holmquist suggested that he simply forget about the weekend, saying, "What is the point of ruining a man's career ... What are you going to accomplish by complaining?"
During the recent interview, which was conducted without his attorneys present, Graham recalled being "white and scared" when he went to see Holmquist. He said the lawyer asked whether he was OK and whether he was seeing a therapist.
"And he said, 'Well, you seem to be under good care.' And he said, 'Ray's retiring, and so the problem will fix itself.' I said, 'I guess.'
"And he said, 'I promise you, your secret's safe with me."'
The district has presented a different version of events.
During a news conference in May, officials released a "Chronology of Events," which says that Graham asked both Sohn and Holmquist not to take action against Cortines because it would be "much too embarrassing." Officials also said Graham expressed reluctance to tarnish Cortines' reputation since he was so close to retirement.
Linda Savitt, the outside attorney who is representing both the district and the 80-year-old Cortines, said she doesn't believe Graham's sexual-harassment allegations were treated differently because they involved the former superintendent.
"It's a function of what is reported, how it's reported, what the person wants done and what the situation is," she said. "The specifics have to be individually analyzed and addressed."
The district previously said Cortines had never before been accused of sexual harassment. Records requests filed with school districts where Cortines had previously worked -- Pasadena, San Jose, San Francisco and New York City -- also turned up no complaints.
Breaking his silence
Graham said his health problems worsened after Cortines retired in April 2011. He broke out in a rash and continues to suffer from other problems that doctors say are stress-related.
Although Cortines was no longer part of the district, Graham said he continued to fear his influence over those still in power.
Bryant said he thought it was important to keep Graham in Cortines' good graces so he continued to foster their friendship. The couple went to brunch with Cortines in December 2011 and invited him to their West Hollywood home in January.
Then in February, the sex-abuse scandal broke at Miramonte Elementary School, along with revelations that district officials had kept parents in the dark about the alleged incidents. About the same time, Graham was ordered to terminate a contractor accused of sexually harassing several female employees.
Graham said the two events convinced him there was a double standard and that it was time to break his silence. Graham told Bryant, who encouraged him to confront Cortines and the district.
"The naivete," Graham said. "It seemed like it wouldn't be that big of a deal. 'This is the truth,' 'This isn't the truth' ... It'll be a good healing experience and it will be over and done with in a matter of days because the facts are so obvious."
Graham hired attorney Arnold Peter, who sent a draft complaint to the district in March, outlining the allegations against Cortines and indicating they planned to file a claim.
The next day, Graham said, he returned to his office from lunch and was told that Superintendent John Deasy, Cortines' successor, had been looking for him. Unsure of what Deasy wanted, Graham went up to the superintendent's 24th floor office.
"He shuts the door, gives me a hug and sits me down and says, "I am so, so sorry,"' Graham recalled. "`I don't know know what to say. My heart goes out to you."'
Deasy would neither confirm nor deny the conversation.
Reaching a settlement
The two sides entered into arbitration and eventually reached a tentative settlement. Graham would receive $200,000 -- enough to pay his attorneys -- and lifetime health benefits, in exchange for him resigning on May 31.
"At that point I was physically sick and I didn't want to be there and I knew I couldn't get medical benefits," Graham said. "I remember feeling like, how could I have fallen so far, when I was making so much money and now all I want is health benefits?"
The school board argued about the agreement during three very tense closed-door meetings, before approving it by a 4-3 vote on May 22.
The next day, without alerting Graham or his attorneys, Savitt and district officials held a press conference at the nearby Chamber of Commerce office where they announced terms of the deal.
It was during that news conference that officials released the statement from Cortines in which he denied sexually harassing Graham, and said the two had engaged in a single incident of "consensual spontaneous adult behavior."
"As the district's former top staff member, I regret allowing myself to engage in such spontaneous, consensual behavior," the statement said. "However, Mr. Graham had never indicated to me that our interaction was unwelcome."
Graham said he was outraged by Cortines' statement, which was released on LAUSD letterhead and widely reported in the media.
"As a deeply committed, married man, who believes deeply in my vows, to have written in the paper that a public institution had divined that I had committed adultery, and not do anything about it, is a sin in itself," Graham said.
Graham did say that the statement was "a victory of sorts," since it's the first time Cortines had ever acknowledged that he is gay.
Over the years, Cortines has steadfastly deflected questions about his sexual orientation, and a district spokesman said the retired schools chief had no comment.
The deal is derailed
Although the district presented the agreement as finalized, Graham hadn't yet signed the deal. Its premature release derailed the settlement and created confusion over his employment status. He went on unpaid leave in June, before quietly returning to the job in July.
During that time, Graham filed the suit against Cortines. The former superintendent has not yet been served with the complaint, so has not filed a response, Savitt said.
Graham also filed a $10 million claim against Los Angeles Unified, saying he was defamed and his privacy was invaded by the release of the proposed settlement. The district denied the claim, and Graham's attorney said he is preparing to file suit against LAUSD.
Savitt's legal fees are being paid by taxpayers. The district refused a Public Records Act request for her contract, citing attorney-client privilege.
Since his return, Graham said, he has received numerous calls and emails of support from colleagues throughout the district. He draws strength from them, from Bryant and from his strong Catholic faith.
Out of his fight with the district, Graham said he hopes to be given the opportunity to advocate for marriage equality and to help raise awareness of the difficult path facing youngsters who are exploring their sexual identities and the support they need from their families -- something he didn't have in his own sheltered childhood.
"We wondered why is it that we lived through the AIDS holocaust?" he said. "In this loving universe, I believe that God has a higher purpose for us, that we saw how precious life is and we're here to tell a story."
L.A. Unified to settle harassment claim against Cortines
The district will pay $200,000 plus benefits worth up to $300,000 in return for Scot Graham's resignation. The ex-superintendent denies harassment but admits 'adult behavior.'
The Los Angeles Unified School District on Wednesday announced the settlement of a sexual harassment allegation against retired Supt. Ramon C. Cortines by a senior employee in the facilities division.
The district will pay $200,000 plus lifetime health benefits, valued at $250,000 to $300,000 to Scot Graham, the director of leasing and asset management. In return, Graham will resign from his $150,000-a-year job.
In a statement, Cortines, 79, denied any harassment, but acknowledged what he called "adult behavior on one occasion," adding that "as the district's former top staff member, I regret allowing myself to engage in such spontaneous, consensual behavior."
An attorney representing Graham, 56, challenged that interpretation.
"If, as the LAUSD and Ray Cortines claim, there was no wrongdoing, then one might ask why such a high settlement," said Arnold Peter.
Cortines, regarded as one of the nation's most respected superintendents, headed the school systems in Pasadena, San Jose, San Francisco and New York City. He first led L.A. Unified on an interim basis for six months in 2000, winning praise for his crisis management.
It was at that time, according to Cortines, that he alerted Graham, a friend from San Francisco, of openings in the district's rapidly expanding facilities division, which was launching a massive school construction program.
Graham joined the district and was there when Cortines returned in 2008, first as deputy superintendent, then as superintendent.
"There were facilities-related projects that required us to work together," Cortines said, adding that Graham, his partner and Cortines continued to meet socially as recently as January.
Graham alleged that Cortines made "inappropriate verbal and physical advances" during a weekend visit to Cortines' Kern County ranch in July 2010.
About a month later, Graham told his supervisor, James Sohn, but said that he would deal with the issue privately "by going to a therapist," according to a district chronology.
When Graham later reported that Cortines subsequently called him at home, Sohn insisted on alerting general counsel David Holmquist.
Graham again insisted that no action be taken, the district said.
Graham reported to Holmquist that there were no other incidents, according to the district.
According to Graham's attorneys, the district's account is inaccurate and incomplete. Graham "complained on at least three occasions to executives at the highest levels... who not only refused to investigate the very serious allegations, but encouraged Mr. Graham to drop his complaints."
Cortines retired in April 2011. In March 2012, Graham's attorneys alerted Holmquist of their intent to file a claim.
The school board has discussed the matter three times in closed session, approving a deal Tuesday by a 4-3 vote.
Richard Vladovic, Bennett Kayser and Marguerite Poindexter LaMotte cast dissenting votes. "The district should have utilized its resources to pursue an aggressive defense," they said in a joint statement.
Linda Savitt, an attorney for L.A. Unified, responded by saying that 98% of harassment claims are settled out of court and that even a successful defense would probably have cost more money.
Savitt, and a public relations firm, Cerrell & Associates, were brought in because the issue was sensitive, officials said. The district took the unusual step Wednesday of announcing the settlement to reporters at a briefing at the Chamber of Commerce headquarters west of downtown.
Savitt said her compensation was "less than $10,000." The district said it does not yet know the price tag for Cerrell's services.