Rafe Esquith may have collected more accolades over the years than any other teacher in America....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.
JUST IN: LAPD confirms ‘ongoing investigation’ of Rafe EsquithLINK
Here are the charges
Disclosures cast new light on LAUSD's probe of teacher Rafe Esquith Editorial
By Yanan Wang December 9, 2015
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.
World-famous teacher files $1 billion lawsuit against Los Angeles schools to end ‘teacher jail’
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.”
(L.A. teacher files claim against school district after being removed from classroom)
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.
[Opinion: L.A. district continues to persecute one of the nation’s best teachers]
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.
Yanan Wang is a reporter on the Morning Mix team.
12/9/2015 9:42 PM EST
I can assure you that in those 2 years, he has NEVER touched us in a SEXUAL way, nor did I feel threatened by him in any way. The tickling it happened maybe once or twice in the whole year and it was just horsing around. He never touched us anywhere besides the sides of your tummy to tickle us to death…..again to get a reaction from us….he thought it was hilarious.
The comment about “surf the net for porn like we always do” obviously it was sarcasm and he told the teacher “it’s a joke” come on. It really was a joke. If you knew him, you could imagine the tone of voice he would say it in. Of course they wouldn’t surf for porn and the firewall on LAUSD’s computers don’t even allow us to do that anyways, I think. We can’t even go on Youtube for God’s sake.
About showing videos of a sexual nature, I do remember him showing us Romeo and Juliet but that was after we read the play in FULL, and Juliet was topless at one point in the movie but he warned us of that beforehand and those that felt uncomfortable didn’t have to watch, I think there was a parent consent form. He wasn’t showing us porn, and he didn’t show us Romeo and Juliet for the fun of it, it was after a culmination of reading the Shakespeare play, like he did with other plays and books, such as To Kill a Mocking Bird, Henry V, Othello, etc. It was the 1968 version where film critic Roger Ebert gave 4/4 and said, “I believe Franco Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet is the most exciting film of Shakespeare ever made" and Rotten Tomatoes critics gave a 97% Fresh rating. So, how horrible of Rafe Esquith to have exposed me to this great film of all time?
12/9/2015 9:41 PM EST
I even remember he used to tell us, “Don’t eat the green M&Ms because it’ll make you horny”. I have no idea why he said that, I feel like he said there was research on that color and horniness? But I’m just sharing that story because he said it in a joking tone of voice and we would giggle, probably wonder if that’s true, not even knowing what horny meant, but we didn’t take it seriously and he would say those kinds of things and we didn’t think twice about those jokes.
Now as an adult looking back, I personally wouldn’t say that but that’s just my own personality. His personality is to joke around about everything….his main objective seemed to be to elicit an embarrassed response from us because he thought it was the funniest thing. He loved SNL, David Letterman, Seinfeld, so his sense of humor was a bit racy perhaps along the lines of SNL/Letterman jokes perhaps. But in 5th grade, I also watched SNL, Letterman, Seinfeld late at night, so it wasn’t anything I didn’t already hear on TV everyday. Am I forever scarred by those jokes where we all laughed as a class, whether we got the joke or not? No. Am I going to now try and sue LAUSD for Rafe making inappropriate jokes long ago, no. Does that make him a pedophile? No. Does that make him a creep? No. Fine, maybe his Principal or fellow teacher should’ve told him, hey, you should knock it off, those jokes are not kid-friendly…but does that mean he doesn’t even get a warning and should be fired and lose his pension? NO. He is THE BEST, most HARD-WORKING teacher I know. He didn’t use good judgment perhaps, but it doesn’t warrant him being smeared like dirt by the LAUSD after 30 years devoting his life to enriching the lives of inner city kids.
12/9/2015 9:40 PM EST
These snippets of ALLEGED inappropriateness released by the LAUSD are, remember, THEIR findings. So from the thousands of emails he must have, since we started using email in the 90s, they are only releasing the ones that they combed through by their “Tiger Investigation Team” to smear his name. So what there are 3 or 4 emails out of thousands of email exchanges that they deem “inappropriate”.
But, you guys don’t know Rafe like we, the students, knew and know him. He is brilliant, talented, all of those things. But he is also a big jokester, prankster, sarcastic, pretty much has a good sense of humor. When you read in the media, that in his email, he called a 14 year old, hottie, I’m sorry, but so what? That is just what he called all of us. He rarely used our names. We got nicknames the first day of class and he would greet any of us “Hey hot stuff” “Hey hottie, how’s it going?” This was not said to us in private, it was said casually, like hey you, how are you? He didn’t mean anything by it people! We would all laugh because it was silly and he just liked the reactions he would get from us, because we were so shy. He was constantly joking around, the type of guy that would say, ok Ladies and Germs. He would say things like Heads I Win, Tails You Lose, and we would be so confused….and he would think it was hilarious. He enjoyed getting that reaction.
12/9/2015 9:37 PM EST
As a former student of Rafe Esquith for 2 years, I just want to say he is THE BEST teacher, bar none. Not only for the world-class education, but for the life-changing experiences (trips to D.C., Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Yosemite National Park, Disneyworld, San Diego Shakespeare Festival) and for planting in me, a dream, for believing in me even when I couldn’t see beyond the poverty-stricken life I had with my immigrant family. If he cared about me more than just another teacher, THANK YOU for making me feel special, for building in me self-confidence, for investing in my life, caring for my emotional well-being, and for my future. If spending extra hours after school and before school to introduce me to Shakespeare and to have me perform it, classical music (teach me to play on guitar and take us to Hollywood Bowl), the Beatles, Seurat, Mondrian, Van Gogh, classical literature like Dickens, Anne Frank, A Separate Peace, Animal Farm, Fahrenheit 454, etc as a 10 year old whose parents never even went to high school, then THANK YOU Mr. Esquith for crossing the boundaries and caring too much for your students. I will never forget my experience and no teacher, no one person, has ever come even close to caring that much about me.
And now, isn’t it interesting how the LAUSD who is always trying to cover up their scandals, are all of a sudden “releasing” THEIR investigation findings against Rafe Esquith, who is by the way heading a class action lawsuit for $1 BILLION? LAUSD does not want to lose this case or maybe even hoping he or his lawyer will decide to drop the lawsuit. They don’t have $1 Billion. So now what is the motivation of these cherry-picked leaks.
12/9/2015 8:46 PM EST
When are folks going to realize that you can't identify these predators? You have to ensure that there is never one adult alone with a child - period.
The BSA addressed this a few years ago with "two deep leadership" rules. It's the only protocol that makes sense.
12/9/2015 11:07 PM EST
Yeah, that "two deep leadership" really works well doesn't it. Pedoes still get into BSA leadership positions and cause problems. The main problem is no one wants to report that nice guy, maybe we just misunderstood his actions.
12/9/2015 5:42 PM EST
Welllllll there was the math teacher in Stafford County who was having sex with students but the District did not want to fire as math teachers are hard to find. A lot of teachers who are guilty of this stuff are just moved from school to school until their actions become impossible to hide.
December 9, 2015
LAUSD HITS NEW LOW IN WITCHUNT AGAINST TEACHERS
Mark Geragos and Ben Meiselas, attorneys for internationally renowned teacher Rafe Esquith, have issued the following response: LAUSD, which is run by Superintendent Ramon Cortines who (1) used $350,000.00 in tax payer money to settle his own crotch-grabbing lawsuit, and (2) who defends a policy in California Courts that the age of consent for his students with teachers is 14 years old, has hit a new low by its own exceedingly low and perhaps non-existent standards.
The release of discredited and baseless allegations with no validation in law or any court, and the piecemeal out-of-context release of an email from a graduate from years ago, reflects the depths of retaliation and retribution from LAUSD on its last throes of existence due to the class action brought against it by thousands of teachers who have been victims to LAUSD teacher witch-hunts. As an initial matter, Mr. Esquith has never used an LAUSD email account. This means that LAUSD would have had to hack into Mr. Esquith's personal AOL Account, without a warrant or notice, and harvested thousands of emails for over a decade since the account was set up. LAUSD illegally accessed attorney-client documents and marital documents, and crafted an illegal and criminal strategy to smear Mr. Esquith by purporting to selectively quote an email from a graduate from years ago from the hundreds of thousands of emails that would have been processed. No student, or parent to this day has ever made any allegation against Mr. Esquith.
In fact, LAUSD's hit squad 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. The students had nothing negative to say. Several former students have hired attorneys and will be bringing lawsuits against LAUSD for the harassment and abuse inflicted on them by LAUSD investigators at the direction of Superintendent Cortines. Additionally, LAUSD is a mandatory reporter under the California Penal Code, Government Code, and Education Code, to report misconduct to the California Teacher Credentialing Commission which conducts investigations into teacher misconduct.
The California Teacher Credentialing Commission run by the Governor’s Office of the State of California, closed its file on May 27, 2015. If LAUSD believed that an email from 2012, read in context, or an allegation from when Mr. Esquith was a teenager from 1960 constituted misconduct, they never reported it. This is because there is no misconduct. Further, the computer instructor Barbara Hayden, who reported Mr. Esquith for quoting Huck Finn, which began the witchunt, emailed Mr. Esquith on three separate occasions telling him that she hoped he returned soon and encouraging his lawsuit against LAUSD. Ms. Hayden was unaware that LAUSD would use her allegation as pretext for the witchunt.
Finally, rather than release reports and documents to Mr. Esquith’s attorneys when they requested it for months, LAUSD rapidly provided documents to the LA Times in the same way LAUSD introduced the LA Times to the mother of a phony accuser from the 1960s so they could get a quote. In response to the public records request, Mr. Esquith demanded that all documents be turned over, and not LAUSD cherry-picked documents. This includes internal emails from Superintendent Cortines and from the LAUSD hit-squad team. This includes the materials submitted by LAUSD to the California Teacher Credentialing Commission when the allegations were discredited. Mr. Esquith requested all documents relating to the tactics, the cost to tax payers, and all internal emails bearing his name be turned over. LAUSD responded that Mr. Esquith would have to seek a Court Order to release all information. Mr. Esquith was previously subjected to numerous background checks by the United States Government before receiving the National Medal of Arts from the United States President. He was subjected to grueling background checks upon being named Disney’s Teacher of the Year and Oprah’s Teacher of the Year.
He was subjected to rigorous background checks before being made a Member of the British Empire. Mr. Esquith has nothing to hide and wants the most transparency rather than a piecemeal leak of fabricated information by LAUSD to the LA Times. That said, LAUSD has established a dangerous precedent for all teachers. Without any case or formal charges pending against them in any forum, LAUSD will hack into your private email accounts, harass and assault former students, and rush to turn over illegally seized and fabricated information to the press. It is now clear that LAUSD, which traditionally objects to public records requests on privacy grounds, has now forever waived those objections based on its conduct here. We encourage all citizens to make public records requests regarding (1) the personnel files for Superintendent Cortines and General Counsel David Holmquist including but not limited to all allegations of sexual harassment and abuse brought against them, (2) for all of the internal emails by LAUSD relating to teacher jail, (3) for all information regarding the formation and conduct of the LAUSD hit squad team and the goal of divesting teachers nearing retirement age of their benefits, and (4) for all information and documents, including internal emails, relating to pending FBI and other governmental investigations into LAUSD.