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Cortines: ‘Serious issues’ in suspension of popular teacher

Craig Clough | June 19, 2015

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Rafe Esquith

Rafe Esquith

Responding to a wave of media attention this week surrounding the suspension of Hobart Boulevard Elementary teacher Rafe Esquith, LA Unified Superintendent Ramon Cortines said today “serious issues” have been raised in the briefings he has seen and that he supported the district’s continued investigation of the case.

Esquith, who has received national recognition and is arguably the district’s most famous active teacher, was removed from the classroom in March for reasons the district has not disclosed. Esquith has hired famed attorney Mark Geragos, who has represented Michael Jackson, numerous other celebrities like Chris Brown and convicted killer Scott Petersen. 

Geragos went on a media campaign this week, telling the Los Angeles Times and CBS Los Angeles that Esquith was suspended for reading passages from the classic Mark Twain novel “Huckleberry Finn” in class. Geragos threatened a lawsuit while demanding an apology from the district and the teacher’s reinstatement.

While the novel has been controversial at times due to racial language and other crass passages, it is also a commonly read book in classrooms around the country, and a quick search shows it is on the syllabus and reading lists at numerous LAUSD schools. Geragos did not explain in any of his comments to the media why the district might suspend a teacher over reading the book. He also claimed a state investigation had already cleared Esquith.

“When you quote Mark Twain you go to teacher jail, your reputation is trampled on and ignorant bureaucrats assume the role of judge and jury in the face of a baseless allegation which has already been found meritless by the California Teacher Credentialing Committee,” Geragos told the Times. “Sadly, it is the students, their families and the community that suffers.”

While not addressing the details of the case, Cortines suggested there was more to it than what Geragos was saying.

“This is a very complex issue. While I respect that this teacher is extremely popular – and has been for some time – in the briefings that have been given to me, there are serious issues that go beyond the initial investigation,” he said in a statement. “The Los Angeles Unified School District will not be rushed to make a decision and will complete our investigation with the highest level of integrity. The safety and security of every District student will remain our number one priority.”

The LA Times reported that Esquith was initially sent to a district administrative office for his suspension, something commonly referred to as “teacher jail,” before being sent home while the investigation is underway.

Esquith has received national recognition for starting a nonprofit, the Hobart Shakespeareans, which raises funds for his students to put on Shakespeare plays. The program has been profiled by PBS, the CBS Evening News, Time, The Washington Post and other national outlets. Esquith is also the author of several books on teaching.

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