Abuse claim now part of misconduct inquiry into noted L.A. teacher

A Los Angeles school district investigation into allegations of misconduct against celebrated teacher Rafe Esquith has broadened to include an accusation that he abused a child 40 years ago, district officials said.

Esquith's attorney, Mark Geragos, said the allegations were an attempt to smear the teacher.

"It's a total set-up," Geragos said. "We've reached the heights of unbelievable smear tactics.... It's despicable conduct and we will hold them accountable."

Esquith did not respond to an email requesting comment. His attorneys said he was on a trip to China.

A longtime educator at Hobart Boulevard Elementary School, Esquith has gained national attention for his teaching methods. In April, district officials removed him from the classroom as part of an investigation into alleged misconduct.

District officials said the inquiry began after a teacher complained about a joke that Esquith made to his students involving nudity. It expanded to include an examination of the finances and management of Esquith's nonprofit foundation, the Hobart Shakespeareans, which puts on an annual play and takes students on field trips.

This week, L.A. Unified investigators interviewed a man who alleged that Esquith physically and sexually abused him in the 1970s.

David Holmquist, the district's general counsel, said the allegations by the man, Marc Bennett, are "part of the overall investigation."

In an interview with The Times on Thursday, Bennett, 49, said that when he was 8 or 9, he attended an after-school program at the Westside Jewish Community Center, where Esquith was employed. Esquith's attorneys confirmed that he worked at the center.

Bennett, who lives in New York City, described three alleged incidents involving Esquith.

"At that point in my life my parents had been divorced. Rafe was charismatic and I looked up to him a bit as kind of a father figure," Bennett said. "I had a fair amount of adoration for him, but it was this really weird thing where it was full of humiliation and a lot of fear. It was very chaotic."

Bennett said he didn't report the alleged abuse at the time. About a decade ago, he said he learned of Esquith's nonprofit work with young children and contacted law enforcement authorities. He also sent a letter describing what he'd been through to an L.A. Unified board member. He couldn't remember the board member's name, but he said that district investigators who called him this week said they had found the letter and asked him to recount his story.

"My hope is that this would inspire other people to come forward if there are others who have had my experience," Bennett said.

Holmquist said the district first learned of the allegations in 2006 and reported them to the Los Angeles Police Department. No charges were filed at the time, and it's unclear whether the district took further action.

As part of the current inquiry, L.A. Unified officials reached out to the LAPD about Bennett's claims, Holmquist said.

Esquith's attorneys filed a claim with the district this week alleging that the teacher's rights have been violated and his reputation sullied. According to the claim, investigators asked Esquith during an interview in May about his time at the JCC. According to the document, one question was: "Were you ever counseled for pushing someone when you were a camp counselor at the JCC Jewish Center Summer Camp you worked at when you were a teenager 40 years ago?"

Esquith's answer was no, according to one of his attorneys. It is unclear whether the question refers to Bennett's allegations or a separate incident.

In an interview with The Times earlier this week, Esquith described the investigation as an overreaction to a quip in which he cited a passage from Mark Twain's "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn."

Esquith said he joked with students that if he could not raise enough money for the annual Shakespeare play, everyone would have to perform their parts naked like the king in the book.

Geragos has accused school officials of dragging out the investigation after failing to find any wrongdoing.

Supt. Ramon Cortines declined to provide details about the probe but said that it included "serious issues that go beyond the initial investigation."

District sources, who spoke on the condition that they would not be identified, said that until recently, the probe has focused mostly on the teacher's field trips and his foundation, which is not affiliated with L.A. Unified. District investigators have tried to examine how the foundation collects and uses its funding, the sources said.

The Hobart Shakespeareans raised nearly $435,000 in 2013, according to the nonprofit's most recent federal financial disclosure forms. Neither Esquith nor his board are paid, according to the filing.

zahira.torres@latimes.com

howard.blume@latimes.com

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