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Parents are angry no one told them what happened to teacher Rafe Esquith

Rafe Esquith teaching his fifth-grade class at Hobart Elementary School in 2005.

Rafe Esquith teaching his fifth-grade class at Hobart Elementary School in 2005.

(Anne Cusack / Los Angeles Times)

Brenda Gonzalez was supposed to perform in “A Winter’s Tale” in April, along with her fellow Hobart Shakespeareans. They’d been preparing all year, her mother, Angie Gonzalez, recalled Thursday. Brenda was going to dance and play the guitar.

But the group’s teacher, Rafe Esquith, was not at Hobart Elementary School the day that the performances were supposed to begin, Gonzalez said.

After about a week of absences, she went to the principal’s office to ask where Esquith was — it was unlike him to miss school.

“We were told it was a family issue,” Gonzalez said.

A few weeks later, Brenda came home and told her mother that students were being pulled out of class and interrogated about Esquith’s actions. Gonzalez and other parents asked, again, what was happening.

Again, the school said it was a personal issue.

In reality, the Los Angeles Unified School District had removed Esquith from class and was investigating a number of issues related to him after a colleague reported that he made a joke to students that contained a reference to nudity.

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This week, the school district fired Esquith, Hobart’s most famous teacher. The district investigation began after the colleague complained about seeing Esquith make an inappropriate joke. The investigation expanded to other matters, including allegations that Esquith touched minors inappropriately before and during his decades-long teaching career. Esquith has denied wrongdoing.

A district spokeswoman said she could not immediately confirm what parents were told, and but that details of the investigation were confidential. District officials said they could not discuss a vote to dismiss a teacher because it is a personnel matter. The Times learned of the vote to begin the dismissal process from sources who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter.

By now, many Angelenos are familiar with Esquith’s name: He’s a former Disney National Outstanding Teacher of the Year who wrote books with titles such as “Teach Like Your Hair’s On Fire.” The investigation into his conduct has been covered by local and national media; scores of former students have spoken out in his defense.

Esquith sued the district in August, seeking to be reinstated, and on Thursday, his attorneys filed a second lawsuit. The new litigation, filed on behalf of Esquith and other unnamed teachers, accuses the district of using questionable investigations to drive veteran, higher-salaried instructors out of their jobs.

Even in the aftermath of Esquith’s dismissal this week, Hobart parents say they have to rely on news reports for details of the case. Some still don’t even know that a teacher at their children’s school was dismissed.

When Esquith stopped teaching, Cecilia Martinez’s daughter, Leslie, was upset. “It was a surprise for me because Leslie was so happy with the teacher,” Martinez said as she stood outside Hobart on Thursday afternoon, waiting to pick up her 7-year-old son.

Martinez also thought that Esquith had to leave because of personal reasons. She had not heard about the allegations against him, or about his being fired. And the little she did know, she said, she found out from another parent.

The school has never contacted her about it or questioned her daughter, as far as she knows.

Neither of Eduardo Salvador’s two elementary school daughters were in Esquith’s class last year, but he said that parents should have been informed about the situation. He had heard a rumor about Esquith making an inappropriate joke, but didn’t know about the more recent allegations, the investigation or the vote to fire him.

“They should have sent letters or something,” Salvador said.

That lack of official communication, Gonzalez said, continued even amid this week’s LAUSD vote to dismiss Esquith. Gonzalez found out that the board voted to fire Esquith on Wednesday night, through a link to the Times story on the Hobart Shakespeareans Facebook page. She hasn’t found a way to to tell her daughter yet.

Yesica Navarro saw the same Facebook post Thursday morning. She was reading the story on her computer at home, and didn’t realize that her son Oscar Llerenas was standing nearby. He was in Esquith’s class too, and asked what she was reading. She tried to explain the situation, but he didn’t react well.

“He cried,” Navarro said. “He was very, very frustrated.”

Times staff writer Howard Blume contributed to this report.

Reach Sonali Kohli on Twitter @Sonali_Kohli or by email at Sonali.Kohli@latimes.com.


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