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Esquith probe now centers on nonprofit Hobart Shakespeareans

Mike Szymanski | July 14, 2015

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Ian McKellen visits Hobart Shakespeareans

The LA Unified investigation of popular teacher Rafe Esquith is now focusing on the nonprofit theater group he founded in 1989, The Hobart Shakespeareans.

“It looks like the bizarre accusations of abuse have been forgotten, and now they’re moving on a request to see 15 years of financial records for the Shakespearean group,” said Ben Meiselas, of Geragos & Geragos, who is representing the teacher, and referred to the continuing investigation as a fishing expedition to try to find something wrong with his client.

Esquith faces unspecific allegations of saying something inappropriate about nudity in a classroom while quoting from Mark Twain. He was removed from the classroom on April 13 and told to report to a district administrative office — often referred to as “teacher jail” — while an investigation was pending.

The district has declined to comment because the investigation is on-going.

The initial investigation grew to include an accusation of sexual abuse 40 years ago, which the teacher denies. Now, the investigation is turning toward Esquith’s nonprofit group which is independent from LAUSD and is run by an independent board of directors. Esquith gets no salary from the Shakespeareans, and in fact donates thousands of dollars of his own money to the group, which was started because of cuts in the arts by LAUSD.

The group teaches students how to perform Shakespeare plays, and has been profiled by CBS, Time, Washington Post, PBS and other national media outlets.

The recent request for documentation came from Scheper Kim & Harris, a law firm outside of LAUSD.

“These investigations become self-fulfilling prophecies,” Meiselas said. “This is a program that has changed people’s lives.”

Actors such as Ian McKellen, Hal Holbrook, John Lithgow and Michael York have visited and praised the Hobart Shakespeareans, and donated money to the group. On its website, 17 groups and individuals have pledged $10,000 or more to them, including William McClatchy, the Roth Family Foundation, Peter and Helen Bing and The Vanguard Group. At least 19 others have donated $5,000.

None of the students or parents involved with the Hobart Shakespeareans has complained about Esquith, who was awarded Disney National Outstanding Teacher of the Year, among other awards. Because of his “teacher jail” status, the dozen sold-out performances planned this year were canceled, as well as a July trip to Oregon for a Shakespeare Theatrical Festival.

According to the attorney’s complaint letter to LAUSD, during questioning, “Students actually felt threatened by the LAUSD investigators. Parents of the students in Room 56 collectively complained to LAUSD about the harassing conduct their students experienced at the hands of the LAUSD investigators.”

Meiselas said he has been getting eight to 10 emails a day about other teachers disciplined through the “teacher jail” system.

“The absurdity of the line of questioning and the McCarthy-like tactics is hard to comprehend,” Meiselas said. “This is not something that even the superintendent (Ramon Cortines) could be able to handle.”

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