When a colleague complained that Rafe Esquith, the most celebrated teacher in Los Angeles, had made a joke about nudity to his fifth-grade students, the district called into action a newly formed squad of investigators to get to the bottom of it.
Internally dubbed the "tiger team," the unit was created last year in the wake of repeated sex abuse scandals that had long plagued the nation's second-largest school district. These investigators were supposed to cut through the bureaucracy's red tape and investigative backlog and quickly ferret out wrongdoing.
In Esquith, they had their highest-profile subject and their biggest test.
This week, based on the unit's investigative efforts, the school board behind closed doors voted unanimously to fire Esquith.
On Thursday, Esquith attorney Mark Geragos criticized the inquiry into his client and slammed the unit as "an investigative hit squad" that was determined to find wrongdoing by probing, if necessary, into every aspect of an employee's life.
District officials defended the work of its investigators, saying they've brought professionalism and a faster resolution to complex cases, which is better for teachers and for students. They said that nearly half of the employees investigated by the unit returned to their jobs.
The team includes seven full-time investigators, a supervisor and two forensic specialists. Among them are former L.A. Police Department detectives and a former investigator with the L.A. County Sheriff's Department. Three former administrators review their work, and the unit is headed by Jose Cantu, who's been with the district for more than 30 years, including 14 as a principal.
Also participating in the Esquith investigation is an outside law firm, a practice the district has reserved for especially sensitive cases.
Esquith qualified for special handling because he is one of the most famous and honored teachers in America, the subject of articles, a documentary and White House accolades. He's renowned for coaxing stirring performances of Shakespeare from Latino and Asian students who live in the working-class neighborhood around Hobart Avenue Elementary School.
In denouncing the unit, Esquith's attorneys pointed to how the investigation started: with a review of a joke about nudity that Esquith made to his fifth-graders in March. Several weeks later, officials pulled Esquith from his classroom, and he never returned.
The evidence gathered in the case is confidential, but district officials outlined allegations in an August letter to Esquith's attorneys. According to the letter, investigators were looking into accusations that Esquith improperly touched minors before and during his decades- long teaching career, that his school computer contained images and video "of a sexual nature," that he exchanged inappropriate emails with students, that he threatened a parent and two students, and that he mishandled a nonprofit through which he funded field trips and other benefits for students.
Esquith's attorneys said they were astounded at how a routine review of a harmless joke ballooned into a sweeping inquiry.
The district has acknowledged that the unit, formally called the Student Safety Investigation Team, decided to examine the nonprofit without specific complaints against it. Officials also insisted that serious allegations emerged that could not be ignored, and that Esquith was not removed from class because of the joke.
Esquith's attorneys already are pursuing litigation to reinstate the acclaimed teacher, but on Thursday they upped the ante. They filed a class-action lawsuit in Los Angeles Superior Court on behalf of Esquith and other teachers, alleging violation of due process, age discrimination, whistleblower retaliation and wrongful discharge.
Esquith's experience, they contend, is indicative of a larger problem: District officials target higher-paid, older teachers to strip them of retirement benefits.
"The vast majority of investigations are based not on student or parent complaints, but rather upon vague allegations by LAUSD administrators which eventually widen to encompass a complete audit of a teacher's life and every association, affiliation, and relationship the teacher has ever had his or her entire life," according to the complaint. "Teachers with unblemished and impeccable records … fear for their lives and reputations."
In the process, students are being mistreated as well, Geragos said at a Thursday news conference. The unit "basically intimidates and tries to extract statements from students that they then use for kangaroo-court-style proceedings in order to get people to resign," he said.
District officials rejected that characterization, saying in a statement that "investigations are conducted in a sensitive manner."
The investigative unit grew out of the 2012 arrest of Miramonte Elementary teacher Mark Berndt, which led to a flurry of allegations and several prosecutions. At one point, more than 320 instructors were in limbo after they'd been pulled from classrooms.
The district has since paid about $200 million in settlements, judgments and legal fees related to Miramonte and other cases — and took a public-relations beating.
Attorney Brian Claypool, who represented 18 families in the Miramonte case, said the investigative team's work is proof that the district learned from the sexual abuse scandal.
"Our goal from Day One was to make fundamental change to eliminate this systemic failure that they've had for decades, and we're now seeing a real heartfelt attempt to cure this problem and to finally put the kids first," Claypool said.
Then-Supt. John Deasy adopted a zero-tolerance approach that won praise for putting student safety above all other considerations. But critics said some teachers were fired or over-punished for relatively minor or unproven infractions.
Esquith is just the latest victim, said Washington Post columnist Jay Mathews, who has chronicled Esquith's classroom success.
The district "has let itself be swallowed up in a witch hunt, with a school board too frightened by the very mention of molestation to stand up for a great teacher," Mathews said. "L.A. schools were making steady improvement, but what energetic and imaginative teachers are going to want to work in a system that has decided to sic attack-dog lawyers on anyone who says something that might seem even mildly offensive?"
The head of the teachers union, however, said the handling of cases has improved under the current superintendent. "In Ramon Cortines we have found a willing partner to address that overreach on the part of Deasy," said Alex Caputo-Pearl, president of United Teachers Los Angeles.
He put the current number of suspended teachers at around 100.
He added that provisions in the new teachers contract provide additional safeguards, but that the union remains concerned about whether the district is abiding by these commitments in all situations.
He declined to comment on Esquith's case.
"We've reached out and been in contact with Mr. Esquith," Caputo-Pearl said. "He opted to hire his own private attorney, which is his right. We support his ongoing efforts to have his due process respected."
Times staff writer Sonali Kohli contributed to this report.