LA Unified's settlement with Rafe Esquith leaves the mystery intact

If there’s anything more famous about educator Rafe Esquith than his bestsellers on pedagogy and the way he instilled a love of Shakespeare in his students, it’s his dismissal from the classroom for allegedly inappropriate behavior with current and former students, followed by his termination.

His many supporters, including actor Ian McKellen, vilified Los Angeles Unified School District for what they called vengeful resentment of Esquith’s unwillingness to conform. Early reports were that Esquith came under suspicion because of a mild joke about nudity to his students, making his abrupt departure from the classroom look like an overreaction. But later, many recoiled when the district released excerpts of some of Esquith’s emails to students and former students, especially teenage girls. He used terms like “hottie” and “sexy” and wrote about maybe trying out his spanking skills on a 14-year-old whom he was looking forward to seeing.

The passages certainly didn’t look savory, but with both sides giving out information selectively, there was no way to know what was really going on. It would take the full facts for the public to unravel an enigma that roiled the district for months.

And now, it appears those facts and that understanding will never be forthcoming. The district has settled the lawsuits Esquith brought against it, making minor concessions such as restoring his retiree health benefits and agreeing to provide accused teachers with counseling and written information about their legal rights.

Had the district run amok with its investigations of teachers after the Miramonte Elementary School case, in which district employees ignored repeated and justified complaints about a teacher’s sexual abuse of students? That’s not an idle question. After all, the district has been too quick on occasion to remove teachers from the classroom who represented no threat to students. Just this week, an arbitration panel ruled that officials had wrongly reprimanded a teacher at the Cortines School of Visual and Performing Arts, who’d been pulled from the classroom in 2014 over science-fair projects that they deemed too weapon-like. Both were common science-project fare. The teacher was returned to the classroom two months later but had to go to arbitration to have the reprimand scrubbed from his record.

In Esquith’s case, there is no satisfying resolution for the public. It’s unclear whether students unfairly lost one of the most inspiring teachers in the nation or were protected from a possible predator.

More important, what are the lessons learned here, and how should the district change its policies — or should it retain them? Both Esquith’s supporters and detractors deserve to know, but chances are they never will.

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2:34 p.m.: One paragraph in this editorial was re-edited for clarity.

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