A renowned Los Angeles teacher, famed for his teaching practices and who was once awarded the Walt Disney American Teacher Award as Outstanding Teacher of the Year, has filed a $1 billion lawsuit against the Los Angeles Unified School District, alleging ageism and “witch hunts” against older teachers.
Rafe Esquith, who, for 30 years has been a teacher at Hobart Boulevard Elementary School, has filed a $1 billion lawsuit against a school district that he claims habitually “[abuses] disciplinary measures to push out older teachers so the district doesn’t have to pay them retirement benefits,” according to CNN.
The teacher’s lawsuit also alleges that district administrators conduct “witch hunts” in order to dredge up dirt on aging teachers so that the firing of said teachers appears to be justified. Teachers are pulled abruptly from their classrooms, Esquith claims, and are placed in what are referred to as “teacher jails,” wherein teachers are left to sit in a cubicle for six hours a day “staring at the wall,” or at home, while they await the outcome of the supposed investigations lodged against them, states the lawsuit.
“[The investigations and firings] follow a remarkably consistent pattern: An older, experienced, and well-paid teacher will unexpectedly be pulled from the classroom in dramatic fashion. LAUSD provides no description of any pending complaint or charges against the teacher whatsoever. Disturbingly, from the very outset, LAUSD administrators label the teachers as immoral, unethical, thieves, abusers or criminals, while at the same time the LAUSD places the teachers under a gag order.”
Esquith’s plight, which has garnered the attention of celebrities such as Hal Holbrook and Sir Ian McKellan — who are longtime fans of the teacher’s attempt to bring literary classics such as Mark Twain and William Shakespeare to low-income immigrant students — began in April with a joke. After having read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn with his class, he joked that if they could not raise enough money for their annual Shakespearean play — put on by Esquith’s own non-profit theatre troupe the Hobart Shakespeareans — students would have to perform their parts like the King did in Huck Finn: naked.
Another teacher overheard Esquith’s joke and complained to the principal that the 61-year-old, highly-decorated teacher was discussing nudity with fifth-graders. What followed were months of investigations into Esquith and allegations that included discussing nudity in class, keeping sexual material on a school computer, buying food for students without parental permission, failing to obtain proper permission slips for field trips, mishandling money from the Hobart Shakespeareans’ nonprofit organization, and physically abusing a boy at a Jewish Day camp more than 40 years ago — an entire decade before Esquith even began his teaching career.
According to the Los Angeles Times, teachers who are placed in these “teacher jails” are entitled to a hearing before the school board votes on disciplinary action, but they do not have to attend such a hearing. Ben Meiselas, one of Rafe Esquith’s attorneys told the Times that they elected not to attend a September hearing, as “they believed the district had predetermined the outcome.”
“At that point we said the litigation is going to take its course. We’ll see you in court.”
Esquith has the option to appeal his firing before an administrative judge, but his class-action lawsuit shows that he has opted for a different course of action. Though the lawsuit seeks punitive damages — not only for himself but also on behalf of the roughly 2,000 Los Angeles teachers who have been wrongfully terminated, had their names dragged through the mud, and have had to suffer sitting in “teacher jails” for up to three years in some cases — the suit does not seek to have Esquith reinstated.
Since Esquith’s dismissal, many former students and supporters have come to his side — including Holbrook and McKellan, who appeared in a YouTube video in support of the teacher.
Aside from being named Teacher of the Year, Esquith, the Los Angeles Unified School District teacher who has lodged a $1 billion lawsuit against his school district, has also been awarded other accolades in his teaching career, such as a 2003 National Medal of the Arts, a Parents Magazine “As You Grow” award, and an Oprah Winfrey $100,000 “Use Your Life” award.
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