Renowned Teacher Takes on L.A. Schools
LOS ANGELES (CN) - Los Angeles Unified School District pulled an "internationally renowned" teacher from the classroom and defamed him after he cited a passage of "Huckleberry Finn" that mentioned nudity, the teacher claims in court.
Rafe Esquith sued LAUSD, Superintendent Ramon Cortines and its general counsel David Holmquist in Superior Court on Thursday.
"This is a lawsuit brought by internationally renowned and award-winning teacher Rafe Esquith against defendants ... for defamation of character, theft of approximately $100,000 worth of musical instruments and works of literature, and intentional infliction of emotional distress that left Mr. Esquith hospitalized with stress-induced thrombosis," the complaint states.
Esquith says he has been teaching since 1984 at the Hobart Boulevard Elementary School, in his "now-legendary Room 56."
His awards include the National Medal of Arts, the Disney National Outstanding Teacher of the Year, Oprah Winfrey's $100,000 "Use Your Life" award, and being made an honorary member of the Order of the British Empire, according to the complaint. He's also written books on education (Including "Teach Like Your Hair Is on Fire") and founded the Hobart Shakespeareans, a nonprofit afterschool organization that provides music and arts education to underprivileged children.
Hobart Elementary, the largest elementary school in the country, is in central Los Angeles between Koreatown and Westlake, the two highest-density communities in the city. Both are ethnically diverse areas with large Latino and Asian populations and median household incomes at or below the poverty line. Many of the school's 2,000 students are first-generation Americans and most come from poor families.
Esquith claims LAUSD launched a campaign to defame him and oust him from his classroom because of his high-profile opposition to its pro-corporation agenda, such as the failed "iPad for every student" initiative.
He claims it all started in March this year, when a staff member filed a "bizarre complaint" accusing him of making an inappropriate joke about nudity in front of his students.
After being called to the principal's office, Esquith says, he explained that the joke was a selection from Mark Twain's "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," which the students had read. He told the class that if they did not receive enough donations for their annual Shakespeare play they would "all have to play the role of the king in Huckleberry Finn."
In "Huck Finn," a fraudulent king and duke gull a town by charging to see them dance around onstage, and painted in bright-colored rings. The complaint does not identify the principal, whom it says was abruptly transferred out of the school, or the person who initially complained about Esquith.
Esquith claims that the principal told him the district was pressuring him to solicit a written apology from Esquith, and that "LAUSD assured him that 'nothing bad was going to happen,' but that LAUSD nevertheless wanted Mr. Esquith to sign a written apology acknowledging that his statements might be viewed as 'serious' and may have made 'others uncomfortable.'"
Esquith says he knew he did nothing wrong, but "did what any reasonable teacher in his position would do," and wrote an apology, which is quoted in the complaint.
He was abruptly sent to "teacher jail," officially known as the Educational Service Center-East.
"(T)eacher jail' is a structure behind gated walls in an industrial area of North Soto Street where teachers are forced to spend their days staring at cubicle walls and not accessing electronics. Gag orders are imposed, teachers' entire lives are pried into by a school district as a rogue regime with its own rules unto itself, devoid of due process. ... Teachers have described the experience as psychological torture, where they are deprived of dignity, and as an experience unlike anything matched in their entire lives," the complaint states. "Mr. Esquith will be bringing a cause of action in his forthcoming federal class action to call for shutting down teacher jail permanently.
Esquith and his attorneys said in June that they had begun preparing a class-action lawsuit against LAUSD, to try to make it shut down its teacher jails permanently. His attorney told the LA School Report they have identified 300 to 400 teachers who have spent time in the teacher jails, many of them for months.
(New York City schools have a similar teacher jail, called the "rubber room," to which it sends teachers, sometimes for years, to receive full pay and do nothing, rather than try to fire them.)
Esquith claims that LAUSD reported him to the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing for alleged "abuse and misconduct," but the commission rejected it for lack of evidence and closed the investigation.
Unappeased, LAUSD launched a smear campaign against him, Esquith says, accusing him of making inappropriate comments, buying a hamburger for a hungry student without parental permission, misusing funds for the Hobart Shakespeareans, and "pushing someone" 40 years ago at a summer camp where Esquith worked as a counselor as a teenager.
In its "fact finding investigation" against him, Esquith says in the complaint, LAUSD investigators also asked him: "List the women you dated when you were in college"; and "Why don't you have backup plan for someone else to put on the annual Shakespearean performance, in case, for example, you have a heart attack"?
It also hired two male investigators to pull his students out of class to interrogate them and intimidate them into accusing him of wrongdoing, which his students refused to do, according to the complaint.
To top it off, he says, the district raided his classroom and swiped $100,000 worth of musical instruments, laptops, books, and the National Medal of Arts given to him by the President of the United States.
Esquith says the district would be better served ousting Superintendent Cortines, who cost it $200,000 to settle a claim that he grabbed a co-worker's crotch, was involved in the district's food services scandal, and who is a board member for Scholastic Inc., an outside vendor, despite the conflict of interest.
"As current and former students, parents, community members, and national leaders have called for Mr. Esquith's reinstatement, LAUSD has dug in its heels and continued its ridiculous campaign. Mr. Esquith has now been compelled to bring this action, and will be bringing a class action on behalf of all teachers, because of LAUSD's illicit, despicable, and self-destructive conduct," the complaint states.
The district has not responded to a request for comment.
Esquith's attorney, Ben Meiselas, called the school district "a criminal cartel" engaged on "a witch hunt of the worst kind."
"What LAUSD is doing to Mr. Esquith is absolutely illegal," said Meiselas, with Geragos & Geragos. "What it has done to thousands of other teachers is illegal and they will be held accountable. They were able to get away with it for so long because no one with as much national prominence as Mr. Esquith has come forward before."
Esquith seeks reinstatement and punitive damages for defamation, intentional infliction of emotional distress, conversion, retaliation, age discrimination and unfair business practices.
Asked to explain the conversion claim, Meiselas said: "LAUSD claimed they confiscated these things for 'environmental reasons. They didn't tell anyone - not the students, not Mr. Esquith - why they took the items until we called them out on it."