Teaching Profession

Release of Rafe Esquith Emails Heightens Debate in L.A. Over Teacher Discipline

By Stephen Sawchuk — December 10, 2015 2 min read
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The Los Angeles school district has released a number of emails from famed educator Rafe Esquith to students that, on their face, seem inappropriate and would appear to back the district’s decision to fire him in October.

Esquith reportedly referred to female students as “hottie,” “sexy,” horny,” among other things, and told another boy that he could “surf the net for porn,” the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post reported in separate stories this week on the emails, which were obtained through an open-records request. Esquith allegedly also lavished trips and gifts on some students, referring to himself as their “ATM.”

Esquith had taught elementary school for three decades at the city’s Hobart Elementary and began a world-renowned nonprofit performing Shakespeare plays. The Los Angeles district initially removed Esquith last spring after a complaint that he’d referred to students performing nude, à la a scene in the novel Huckleberry Finn.

Esquith’s attorney, Mark Geragos, said that the emails were taken out of context, and were “discredited and baseless,” the L.A. Times reported.

Esquith has not been charged with any crime.

What’s particularly interesting here from a teacher-policy perspective are the implications Esquith’s case could have on the debate about teacher dismissal and due process. Those issues have intensified significantly in California, thanks to the abuse scandal at Los Angeles’ Miramonte Elementary School and the Vergara case, which proclaimed that current firing processes for teachers were too burdensome.

As my colleague Ross Brenneman and I wrote recently, Los Angeles has been navigating a difficult rock-and-a-hard-place situation: The Miramonte abuse case put pressure on the district to be hypervigilant in preventing other scandals, but critics say it’s gone into witch-hunt mode by setting up a special unit to investigate teachers, some of whom seem to have been investigated for trivial things.

Esquith has had powerful and vocal defenders, such as the Washington Post’s Jay Mathews. Mathews recently penned another op-ed claiming that, these new revelations aside, Esquith has not had the chance to depose his accusers or present his side of the story. “I think any of us could be made to look bad if an 18-person team were given access to our office computers and set free to ask anyone anything they wanted to know about us, with no chance to investigate those accounts independently,” he wrote.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teacher Beat blog.