Rafe Esquith fired: Former Teacher of the Year accused of inappropriately touching minors

The Los Angeles Board of Education voted this week to fire nationally recognized teacher Rafe Esquith, following a misconduct investigation that included allegations he made an improper joke to students and inappropriately touched minors, according to sources with knowledge of the decision.

The longtime educator at Hobart Avenue Elementary School, who has received national acclaim for his teaching and his bestselling books, has denied wrongdoing.

Acting on the recommendation of senior administrators, the school board voted unanimously behind closed doors Tuesday to begin termination proceedings against Esquith, according to sources who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak about the matter.

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Esquith, 61, was removed from the classroom in April after another educator complained about a joke he made to students relating to nudity. The complaint prompted an investigation, which quickly grew to include other allegations of misconduct.

In a letter to Esquith's attorneys in August, district officials said they were investigating claims that he inappropriately touched minors before and during his more than 30-year teaching career. The district also said the inquiry "revealed multiple inappropriate photographs and videos of a sexual nature." Other allegations involved his handling of a nonprofit.

Esquith's attorney, Mark Geragos, said in an email that he believed any action against his client was a preemptive move to a class-action lawsuit he intends to file this week "on behalf of thousands of teachers who all attest to the pattern and practice of the District to gin up false complaints to divest teachers of their benefits as they near retirement age." Geragos, however, did not address questions about the board's action against Esquith.

District officials declined comment, calling it a confidential personnel matter.

Earlier this year, the famed educator's suspension outraged supporters across the country, who demanded he be returned to the classroom. His lawyers accused the district of attempting to smear the teacher. They filed a lawsuit seeking his reinstatement. In court papers, they alleged that the investigation was launched because Esquith had quipped that if he could not raise enough money for an annual Shakespeare play, students would have to perform their parts naked like the king in Mark Twain's "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn."

District officials said the joke was not the focus of the investigation, which had yielded more serious allegations, including one of sexual abuse that dated back forty years. The district also stated in the August letter to Esquith's attorneys that it was looking into possible "ethical and district policy violations" related to his nonprofit, the Hobart Shakespeareans.

Esquith can challenge his dismissal before an administrative law judge.

An L.A. Unified spokeswoman said Wednesday that Esquith was no longer being paid by the district.

Teachers are entitled to a hearing before the school board votes on any disciplinary action, but they do not have to participate. After the hearing, educators are informed of any recommendation for dismissal.

In Esquith's case, one of his attorneys said they elected not to take part in a September hearing because they believed the district had predetermined the outcome.

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"At that point we said the litigation is going to take its course. We'll see you in court," attorney Ben Meiselas told The Times last week.

In addition to his reinstatement, Esquith's lawsuit against the district seeks unspecified damages for defamation, intentional infliction of emotional distress, retaliation and age discrimination. Stress from the investigation led to Esquith's recent hospitalization, according to the suit.

zahira.torres@latimes.com

Twitter: @zahiartorres

howard.blume@latimes.com

Twitter: @howardblume

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