LA Times Gets Unlikely Support For Decision To Publish Allegations Against Famed LA Teacher

On Tuesday, the LA Times published a story about famed/infamous LAUSD teacher Rafe Esquith including disturbing new details about the district’s allegations against him — descriptions of inappropriate behavior and snippets of creepy emails, among other things. The Washington Post soon followed suit.

To some observers, the allegations being described (including inappropriate comments and actions directed towards students) seemed to suggest that Esquith might have needed to have been removed from the classroom this past April:

“I’ve seen a lot of descriptions of this LA case as a witch hunt,” wrote Vox’s Libby Nelson on Twitter. “Turns out not so much.” 

But Esquith has a lot of supporters — and critics of LAUSD aren’t hard to find:

A June 2015 LA Times article by Howard Blume (Rafe Esquith supporters urge reinstatement of noted L.A. teacher) noted that Esquith’s supporters included board member Bennett Kayser, who’s quoted as saying “We seem to be going crazy in some of the witch hunts, looking for things to accuse people of.”

And so to others, the LA Times’ story was more evidence of a smear campaign against Esquith by the district.

In an October piece titled L.A. school board fires Rafe Esquith, one of nation’s most lauded teachers, longtime Washington Post education columnist Jay Mathews suggested that the district was on a witch hunt against the teacher for, among other things, having won too much praise and bent too many rigid bureaucratic rules.  As of Thursday, Mathews remains a strong supporter of Esquith’s and a vehement critic of the district’s actions.

However, other previous/likely Esquith allies such as Kayser, teachers union local UTLA, the national AFT, and Diane Ravitch are remaining silent and/or neutral. And, while the LA Times says it stands by its decision to report the one-sided LAUSD investigation, there are still lots of unanswered questions about the case and the decisionmaking process that led to the publication of the allegations against Esquith.

It seems possible that — even if it turns out Esquith is guilty of some or all of the behaviors alleged against him — that coverage of the case by the LAT and the Washington Post hasn’t been as careful as it could have been. 

The Tuesday LA Times story (New documents provide details of LAUSD probe that led to firing of famed educator Rafe Esquith), bylined by Zahira Torres, reports that an LAUSD investigation found the teacher “allegedly fondled children in the 1970s and that in recent years he inappropriately emailed former students describing them as hotties, “sexy” and referring to himself as their personal ATM, according to new documents.”

According to the Times story, the information was released to the paper under the state open records law. It also reports being told by the district that Esquith “has denied wrongdoing [but] did not appeal his termination.” No criminal charges have been filed, according to the LA Times. Along with roughly 2,000 others, the former teacher is suing LAUSD for age discrimination and violation of due process protections. Esquith’s lawyer does not appear to have challenged the incidents and exchanges detailed in the Times story.

 The Washington Post version of the piece (Documents allege years of sexual misconduct by famous L.A. teacher) also describes documents from LAUSD detailing “years of allegations against Esquith, starting from when he was still a teenager working with schoolchildren at the Westside Jewish Community Center.” The teacher described in the 66-page LAUSD file “bears little resemblance to the one beloved by the public,” according to the Post.

Reached by email, Mathews continued to defend the teacher, pointing out that the LAUSD-released documents are “testimony that [Esquith] has not been allowed to challenge” and reiterating the claim that the district had undertaken “an investigation in search of damning evidence after the state commission said the classroom joke was not a violation.” 

On Wednesday, Mathews doubled down with a new column titled It’s Still a Witch Hunt, noting that “none of the allegations by the district’s Student Safety Investigation Team have been corroborated by independent investigators. He has not yet had an opportunity to depose his accusers under a lawsuit he has filed against the district for suspending him in April and firing him in October… Hopefully we will learn more then about how these investigations affected the many other teachers that were targeted, and what this has done to the reputation of a school district turning over the lives of any teacher it wants to, on the slightest excuse.”

Others aren’t so clear or vocal about their views on Esquith any longer.

School reform critic Diane Ravitch blogged about the situation (Did Rafe Esquith Deserve to be Fired?,without giving her own opinion: “A reader says the emails cited here are “nauseating.” Were they grounds to fire Rafe Esquith, one of the most celebrated teachers in the nation? What do you think?”

In the past, UTLA has appeared to support teacher Esquith. For example, this undated blog post on the UTLA site (UTLA Supports Due Process for Teacher Rafe Esquith) notes that “All educators are entitled to due process—which includes being informed in a timely manner by the District of any allegations that are being investigated” and that UTLA has organized around the issue of the “teacher jail” system “that ballooned under former Superintendent John Deasy.”  

Reached by email yesterday, however, UTLA indicated that it was not commenting on the most recent allegations and says that it’s not involved in Esquith’s lawsuit against LAUSD. And the national AFT referred a request for comments to UTLA.

There are several legal and procedural issues that remain murky, notes union watchdog Mike Antonucci: “Esquith is no longer employed by LAUSD, and so isn’t entitled to disclosure protections in perpetuity,” observes Antonucci via email. Also, Esquith is suing the district, “so in essence he has thrown his own history into the public domain. Plus I’m unclear as to how much of this was sitting in his official file, and how much was discovered entirely as a result of the investigation.”

 “As far as UTLA goes, I thought it was significant from the beginning that Esquith didn’t bring them in,” according to Antonucci. “I think UTLA is torn between wanting to use Esquith to pursue the narrative that LAUSD is trying to railroad tenured teachers out of their jobs in order to cut payroll, and worried that they might end up validating the stereotype of unions defending perv teachers.”

On Wednesday, Esquith’s lawyers fired back against LAUSD for releasing incomplete or misleading information to the public, and called on the district to release a more complete version of the information that’s been gathered: “No student, or parent — to this day — has ever made any allegation against Mr. Esquith,” the attorneys said in a statement reported in the LA Times.

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As for the LA Times, it stands by its decision to report out the LAUSD findings: “We felt a responsibility to follow LAUSD’s investigation of Esquith, particularly given LAUSD’s record on handling misconduct allegations against teachers and Esquith’s attorneys’ claims that the district was searching far and wide to come up with problems with his record,” wrote LA Times spokesperson Hillary Manning in an email.

“We filed a Public Records Act request for his disciplinary records to determine what we could about the teacher and about the district’s six-month probe. The records contained new details about the allegations against Esquith and LAUSD’s response…. Esquith’s attorneys were given opportunity to respond but chose not to. We believe we handled the disciplinary records seriously and sensitively and will continue to follow this story wherever it takes us.”

It’s worth pointing out that the LA Times (with funding from the Hechinger Report) was one of the first and only major news outlets to request and publish the individual performance ratings for thousands of teachers — a 2010 series that was one of the most controversial and disputed decisions in recent memory.

Leaving aside the issue of Esquith’s behavior (and the blatant ass-covering/responsibility-avoiding that’s going on among various indignant and/or silent entities involved), there are some open questions about the LA Times’ decision to publish the information it had requested from the district in the form that it did.

What else could the paper have done? One other option would have been to go back to the district and requesting the full file (including both testimonials for the teacher and allegations against him) as a condition of going forward. Another would have been for the paper to have re-reported the allegations against Esquith for itself, rather than simply passing along the highlights of the partial record assembled and given over.

Both of these approaches would have given greater credibility to the allegations against Esquith and brought to life the full breadth of experiences those whom he taught. 

But again, there are more questions than concrete information. So far, at least, we don’t know exactly what the LA Times asked for, or how complete or incomplete the information it received back from LAUSD was.

I’d also love to know whether this kind of public records release is unusual or unprecedented, given the absence of criminal charges and the privacy usually accorded to personnel files. (Again, neither UTLA nor LAUSD has agreed to answer my questions, and the LA Times sent me a blanket email rather than allow me to talk with the editor or reporters involved with reporting the story.)

Others disagree that there’s any question about what the Times shouldhave done. As critical as he is of LAUSD’s actions, Mathews praises the LA Times for the work it’s done, both in his December 9 column and via email.  

Asked if the LAT was wrong to publish the findings from the LAUSD investigation, Mathews responded “Absolutely not. It is news… This has to play itself out.”

Alexander Russo

Alexander Russo is a freelance education writer who has created several long-running blogs such as the national news site This Week In Education, District 299 (about Chicago schools), and LA School Report. He can be reached on Twitter at @alexanderrusso, on Facebook, or directly at alexanderrusso@gmail.com.