From his modest classroom at Hobart Boulevard Elementary School in Koreatown, Rafe Esquith became an education superstar. His teaching techniques brought him world-wide recognition, and his books became models for how to engage young students.
But for about the last two months, Esquith has been sidelined as the Los Angeles Unified School District investigates allegations of misconduct against the popular teacher. Esquith and his attorneys said the investigation is related to comments about nudity that he made to students.
They also said that L.A. Unified is looking into Esquith's nonprofit, the Hobart Shakespeareans.
The decision to put him on leave – and keep him there for so long – has outraged his supporters. But the district has not backed down, saying that regardless of his celebrity, they won't send him back to school until their investigation is over.
The debate comes as the school district struggles to recover from a series of scandals involving teachers and administrators accused of sexual misconduct with students. L.A. Unified last year paid a record $139 million to the victims of a Miramonte Elementary School teacher who was allowed to stay in the classroom even after complaints about his behavior with students.
Some see the Esquith case as part of the district's effort to strengthen its response to allegations of misconduct, but whether it is an over-correction remains a matter of debate.
In his first interview since he was pulled from his fifth-grade class, Esquith acknowledged Monday that he quipped with students that if he could not raise enough money for the annual Shakespearean play they would all have to perform their parts naked like the king in "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn."
After another teacher complained, he said he explained the context of the joke to his principal at Hobart Boulevard Elementary. The principal, he said, told him he had nothing to worry about. But Esquith was removed from the classroom in April.
"We overreact to everything. That's the American way and I'm a victim of that overreaction," Esquith said. "I want to fix this system. I want to make sure that teachers do not have to go through the same thing that I went through."
Attorney Mark Geragos, who is representing Esquith, launched the first salvo Monday in the dispute over the allegations of misconduct against the veteran teacher, filing a formal claim against L.A. Unified, a precursor to a lawsuit. The claim gives notice of a class-action suit that Esquith's attorney plans to file against the district arguing that hundreds of teachers in similar situations have been denied due process rights.
Leaders of the teachers union, who have roundly criticized the use of so-called teacher jails, said the number of instructors pulled from classrooms after allegations of misconduct exploded after the abuse scandal at Miramonte.
Since last June, 89 teachers and others have been taken out of the classroom pending an investigation.
District officials declined to provide details of the investigation. But L.A. Unified General Counsel David Holmquist said the school system will not sacrifice student safety or a thorough investigation because the public and employees want a quick resolution.
"When it comes to student safety, we're going to choose students over adults every time," Holmquist said.