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Esquith attorneys plan class-action lawsuit for those in teacher jail

Well-known Los Angeles Unified teacher Rafe Esquith speaks at a KPCC forum event in 2013.
Well-known Los Angeles Unified teacher Rafe Esquith speaks at a KPCC forum event in 2013.

Attorneys for Los Angeles Unified teacher Rafe Esquith raised the stakes in their battle to get him reinstated this week, signaling their intent to file a class-action lawsuit for those in so-called teacher jails and those they say have been denied due process. 

Esquith, the award-winning Hobart Boulevard Elementary School teacher, was reprimanded for making a joke when reading a passage from Huckleberry Finn that described a king prancing naked, according to his attorneys. 

The episode led to his removal from his classroom. Now Esquith is at the center of a larger debate over so-called “teacher jails” where instructors facing various allegations wait out a resolution of their cases at locations such as education centers or at home.

“Teachers have described this as a form of torture, having to sit there all day doing nothing,” said Ben Meiselas, one of Esquith’s attorneys. In their claim filed Monday with LAUSD, the attorneys said they intend to bring a class-action lawsuit on behalf of “thousands of well-respected teachers deprived of their rights by the Los Angeles Unified School District.” 

Esquith is prevented from speaking with parents and students and is now assigned to his home with pay. His assignment to teacher jail led to the cancellation of the annual Hobart Shakespeareans production that he oversaw and a student trip to Oregon for a Shakespeare festival.

School district officials declined to comment on the attorney's filing. 

In a statement last week, Cortines said Esquith’s case raised “serious issues” that went beyond an initial investigation. But the district declined to disclose any details.

Meiselas rejected the superintendent's suggestion that there are serious issues beyond the reading of the book passage and the joke that followed.

“Those complex issues are issues that they created," he said. 

According to his attorney, Esquith has been cleared by the California credentialing agency of any wrongdoing stemming from the Mark Twain reading. 

An agency spokesperson said he was not allowed to comment on whether other cases are or aren’t pending against Esquith. 

Alex Caputo-Pearl, president of the teachers union UTLA, said its new contract with the district includes language making clear that when there is a ”very serious concern” about student safety, teachers can be removed from the classroom. But he said the teachers must be provided due process and told what the allegations are against them.

“We are concerned now with this new teacher jail case that we are seeing with Rafe Esquith, we are concerned that the district may not be following the contract language that was clearly laid out in this new agreement in April,” Caputo-Pearl said.

He said the union is speaking with Esquith and his attorneys to gather more details.

KPCC education reporter Annie Gilbertson contributed to this report.