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L.A. Unified settles lawsuits with teacher Rafe Esquith

Rafe Esquith may have been America’s most famous teacher — even, some said, its best — when the Los Angeles Unified School District fired him in 2015.

The three lawsuits prompted by that dismissal were put aside as the two sides settled and issued a brief joint statement Wednesday morning.

Esquith, 63, will receive lifetime health benefits, earned by his long tenure as a teacher, and the satisfaction that the settlement includes language intended to better protect the rights of teachers accused of wrongdoing. His attorneys describe the settlement as a major win for all L.A. teachers. The district says it reinforces changes it already has made to properly balance the rights of teachers with the need to protect students from harm and the district from liability.

“Mr. Esquith has tendered his resignation, effective October 31, 2015, and L.A. Unified has retroactively accepted it,” the statement read. “Mr. Esquith has helped teachers become more aware of the administrative reassignment process in place.”

Esquith’s attorneys also will receive an estimated $150,000 that is meant to cover a portion of their legal fees. Attorney Ben Meiselas, part of a team representing Esquith, said the vast majority of that money will be donated “to a charity that will be inspired by the teachings of Rafe.”

The lifetime benefits are worth an estimated $250,000 and will function for Esquith and his wife as a free Medicare supplement policy. According to L.A. Unified, Esquith had earned these benefits over 30 years of service as a teacher but had neglected to file for them, choosing instead to challenge his dismissal through litigation. As a result, he lost his eligibility to receive them. The settlement allows the benefits to be restored.

“This is something that he was entitled to at the time,” said David Holmquist, general counsel for L.A. Unified.

One of Esquith’s three lawsuits challenged his dismissal. A second began as a federal class-action suit in which Esquith intended to fight on behalf of older, veteran teachers, who he claimed were systematically and illegally mistreated. The class-action claim hit a roadblock in federal court, and Esquith instead pursued another lawsuit in state court, alleging defamation, age discrimination and retaliation.

The settlement provides for teachers accused of wrongdoing to receive written notice about their legal rights and counseling from a district staff member, Meiselas said.

The school board approved the tentative settlement Tuesday in closed session by a vote of 6 to 1. Board member Nick Melvoin was the dissenter.

Esquith gained fame as a teacher for the annual Shakespeare productions performed by his fifth-graders at Hobart Boulevard Elementary, which serves a low-income neighborhood in Koreatown. The award-winning instructor also was well-known for his books such as “Teach Like Your Hair’s on Fire,” and through extensive media profiles.

His troubles began when another faculty member reported in March 2015 that Esquith had made an inappropriate joke about performing a play in the nude. That offhand remark prompted a deeper review of Esquith’s deportment with students and his management of a nonprofit and student field trips.

The district also looked into allegations of abuse that dated back decades, before Esquith became a teacher.

His defenders accused investigators of needlessly sullying Esquith’s reputation with a fishing expedition that was determined to find behavioral blemishes or worse.

Seven months after the investigation began, the school board weighed the findings in closed session. Although none of the evidence resulted in criminal charges, the board voted to fire Esquith, prompting the litigation.

howard.blume@latimes.com

@howardblume

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