Supporters of suspended teacher Rafe Esquith urged the Los Angeles Board of Education at its Tuesday meeting to reinstate the popular and nationally respected instructor.
Esquith was pulled from the classroom in April pending the results of an internal, confidential investigation. Esquith and his attorney told The Times that the probe started after a teacher overheard and reported a joke Esquith made about nudity to his fifth-grade students at Hobart Boulevard Elementary School in Koreatown.
The inquiry subsequently moved into other areas, including Esquith’s nonprofit foundation, the Hobart Shakespeareans.
Esquith “made a joke to his students … that’s out of the norm,” said Craig Foster, a board member for the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District. “What else is out of the norm is that Rafe Esquith reads Mark Twain with students,” as well as George Orwell, Harper Lee and William Shakespeare, added Foster, ticking off a list of authors.
Foster also cited the teacher’s numerous honors. “Rafe Esquith is a gem. He is one of the great teachers of the United States,” he said.
“Today you have an opportunity to end this; you have an opportunity to end this positively,” he told the board, adding that he was speaking as an individual, not a representative of his own school system.
L.A. schools Supt. Ramon Cortines and other officials have declined to release details about the probe, but said there were serious issues to sort out. Esquith's attorneys said the inquiry has moved beyond the nudity joke that was a literary reference to a passage in "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn."
Also appealing to the board were former students covering the breadth of Esquith’s long career.
A student from 2000, who graduated at the top of her class at Brown University called Esquith a “lifelong mentor and friend.”
“Rafe showed me the world, but he also showed me the value of humility and honesty,” she said.
A student from this year’s class said he felt safe in Esquith’s classroom because he emphasized kindness and “because he genuinely cares about us.”
This year’s annual student Shakespeare performance was canceled.
The testimonials were persuasive to board member Bennett Kayser.
“Rafe was a teacher of my older son and one of the best teachers I have met,” Kayser said. “And what an awful thing to hold him hostage right now and have him out of his classroom.”
Kayser also referred to the large number of other teachers removed from classrooms pending investigations in the wake of the Miramonte Elementary child abuse scandal.
“We seem to be going crazy in some of the witch hunts, looking for things to accuse people of,” he said.
At the time Kayser spoke, board members had not been officially briefed on the Esquith inquiry. In a Monday interview, district general counsel David Holmquist said that student safety always has to be the top priority. Officials also have asserted that some investigations must remain confidential, to protect those involved and to avoid compromising interviews and the review of documents.