New documents provide details of LAUSD probe that led to firing of famed educator Rafe Esquith
The Los Angeles Unified School District’s internal investigation into celebrated fifth-grade teacher Rafe Esquith found that he allegedly fondled children in the 1970s and that in recent years he inappropriately emailed former students describing them as hotties, “sexy” and referring to himself as their personal ATM, according to new documents.
The district fired Esquith in October, after removing him from his Hobart Boulevard Elementary School classroom in April, pending the investigation. District officials initially offered few details about the months-long inquiry, which began with a complaint from another educator after Esquith made a joke to his students about nudity. The investigation quickly grew to include other allegations of misconduct.
Records released this week by L.A. Unified to the Los Angeles Times under the California Public Records Act allege “immoral” and “egregious” misconduct by the educator who taught at the school for more than 30 years. The documents also charge that Esquith had acted dishonestly, was unfit for service and persistently violated or refused to obey district rules.
Esquith, who has denied wrongdoing, did not appeal his termination, district officials said.
His lawyers have sued L.A. Unified, accusing them of retaliating against Esquith for filing a lawsuit and class action litigation that alleges age discrimination and violations of due process and whistleblower protections.
Esquith gained national acclaim for his teaching techniques, productions of Shakespeare and best-selling books that became models for engaging students, particularly minority and low-income children. His removal from the classroom outraged supporters across the country.
Attorney Mark Geragos, who represents Esquith, did not respond to phone calls and emails seeking comment. But in a letter Monday to L.A. Unified before it released the documents, Geragos wrote that he wanted to make sure that “all records are produced rather than just those cherry-picked by LAUSD to generate a fraudulent narrative.”
“This is LAUSD’s latest effort to smear,” Geragos wrote.
The district’s investigative team, which includes former L.A. Police Department detectives, launched an investigation after an educator complained in March that Esquith made an inappropriate comment to students.
Esquith and his attorneys have said the educator quipped 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 Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.”
But, according to disciplinary documents, teacher Barbara Hayden reported an incident from March 2015 in which Esquith told a student who had completed his work that he could “surf the net for porn. That’s what we do in our spare time.” Esquith allegedly pointed at the teacher as he spoke and said the comment was a joke. Hayden also told school administrators that Esquith told a student who would appear in an upcoming play that “if the audience doesn’t like his performance, he can perform while nude, or at least wear a fig leaf. And, from what I’ve heard, it would be a small fig leaf.”
Esquith has not been charged with a crime.
The documents claim Esquith fondled two boys and a girl in the 1970s. One boy, now an adult, told investigators that when he was 9 years old he was part of an after-school program and was struck several times by Esquith, who then worked for the Westside Jewish Community Center. In another incident, the same man recalled Esquith babysitting him and rubbing his genitals, the documents said.
Esquith’s work computer contained inappropriate pictures and videos, according to the documents. Some women were shown wearing bikinis, while others were topless or nude.
One of Esquith’s students during the 1990s recalled an incident in which he pulled her onto his lap and touched her on the buttocks, causing her to jump up away from him. The former student told investigators that she saw Esquith place female students across his lap and spank them.
According to district disciplinary documents, Jay Gowan, a former fourth-grade teacher at Hobart, told investigators about two incidents that he said occurred between 2003 and 2005. Gowan said one evening at about 5 p.m. he walked to Esquith’s classroom to ask a question and found him bent over tickling a female student. On one occasion, Gowan said, Esquith pointed to a student and said that she “loved green M&M’s because they made her horny.”
The documents also reveal more recent allegations.
One student reported that Esquith had taken him into a storage room, grabbed his neck and slammed him against the wall after learning that he kicked another student during the 2011-12 school year. In an April 2013 meeting with the school principal, Esquith denied touching the student.
Snippets of email exchanges between Esquith and some of his former students seem to indicate he was serving as a benefactor to them while musing about their love lives and personal relationships. The exchanges were culled from Esquith’s district-issued computer. L.A. Unified redacted the identities of the students Esquith emailed.
Esquith informed one former student that he would have money next time they saw each other so that she could pay for her schooling at Immaculate Heart, according to the documents. He tells another student that he will pay for books, uniforms and additional classes, estimating that it will cost about $1,800. At one point, Esquith ends an email with “your favorite ATM. Rafe.”
In one 2013 email, Esquith praised a former student, who was 14 years old, saying she was “Beautiful. Elegant. Dazzling. Sexy. Gorgeous.” And in the same conversation writes “don’t argue, hottie.” He later writes to her, “you’re soooooooooooooooo fine.”
The conversations include one in which the girl thanks him for giving her lunch money and “for the hundreds and hundreds” he’s given her.
He sent her another email in January 2012, writing, “Top Ten reasons you are NOT coming this Saturday. 1. I spank really hard!!! Your bottom will hurt for months…”
She responds with: “I just feel like we haven’t seen each other in awhile!!!! So don’t jump to any conclusions! Hahaha!”
Esquith then replied: “I’d love to see you tomorrow, and maybe even try that spanking!”
In a 2011 email he offers encouragement to the same girl as she looks toward her next school year, writing “You will do WELL wherever you go because you’re great, but I want you to be happy and have lots of guys and beer and drugs and all the things that make high school great!”
The investigation also expanded to include an examination of the finances and management of Esquith’s nonprofit foundation, the Hobart Shakespeareans, which puts on an annual play and takes students on field trips.
According to the documents, Esquith failed to provide appropriate supervision during field trips.
He also conducted Saturday classes at Hobart for the nonprofit and charged $100 per month for students. The money was paid directly to him and receipts were not provided, according to the documents. He told students that the money would help pay for airfare, lodging and seeing plays on their trip to Oregon.
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