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LAUSD superintendent says investigation of popular teacher will not be rushed

Investigation of allegations against popular teacher will not be rushed, L.A. Unified leader says

Without providing more details about the allegations against a nationally recognized teacher, the leader of Los Angeles Unified said the district will not rush an investigation into why the instructor was removed from the classroom simply because of his popularity.

Supt. Ramon C. Cortines said the probe into allegations of misconduct against longtime Hobart Boulevard Elementary School teacher Rafe Esquith is “very complex” and must be handled carefully.

“While I respect that this teacher is extremely popular — and has been for some time — in the briefings that have been given to me, there are serious issues that go beyond the initial investigation,” Cortines said in a statement.

He added, “The Los Angeles Unified School District will not be rushed to make a decision and will complete our investigation with the highest level of integrity. The safety and security of every district student will remain our number one priority.”

Esquith’s attorney, Mark Geragos, said earlier this week that the district had 10 days to issue a public apology and return the award-winning teacher to the classroom or he would sue the system.

Parents and former students also are demanding more information about the investigation into Esquith, who has written several books on teaching and received multiple awards for his work. His attorneys said he was pulled from the classroom after a complaint about a Mark Twain passage that he read in class.

On Friday, Ben Meiselas, an attorney who works with Geragos, said, “We now welcome Supt. Cortines as a defendant to our lawsuit if he does not issue an apology during the time frame we provided.”

That 10-day period ends June 26, he said.

“Supt. Cortines’ statement sadly and shockingly confirms what we have said since day one,” Meiselas said. “This is a fishing expedition of the worst kind by bureaucrats who don’t know a thing about the classroom. Apparently, after the 'initial' investigation was found to be meritless, LAUSD has taken it upon itself to manufacture new ways to attempt to defame Mr. Esquith.”

Esquith was removed from his classroom in March and is now home waiting for the results of the district’s investigation, which is expected to be completed before school starts in August.

Geragos said the district has not clearly outlined the allegations against the popular teacher, but he learned that the investigation stemmed from a complaint by another teacher after Esquith read to a class a passage from "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" by Mark Twain.

The passage, which is much longer, includes this section: “The duke and the king worked hard all day, setting up a stage and curtain and row of candles for footlights. … At last, when he’d built up everyone’s expectations high enough, he rolled up the curtain. The next minute the king came prancing out on all fours, naked. He was painted in rings and stripes all over in all sorts of colors and looked as splendid as a rainbow.”

On Friday, Esquith's attorneys offered more context about a joke that Esquith made following the reading of the literary passage.

Meiselas said Esquith, who puts on an annual Shakespearean play, joked with students that if he could not raise enough funding, the class would have to perform naked like the king in the book. Meiselas said he learned about the joke Friday after asking Esquith for more details about his use of the passage.

Esquith’s nonprofit, the Hobart Shakespeareans, cancelled 12 performances of “The Winter’s Tale,” which were set to begin April 23.

District officials this month also required Esquith to cancel a trip with students to attend the Shakespearean Theatrical Festival in Oregon.

In a letter to Esquith, officials said the trip had not been authorized or sponsored by the district “as evidenced by the lack of authorization via the proper channels for field trip authorization.”

Esquith, who wrote three books, including "Teach Like Your Hair's on Fire: the Methods and Madness inside Room 56," has received national recognition for his teaching abilities. He also has criticized what he considers to be too much testing and scripted teaching methods. 

Twitter: @zahiratorres

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