Friday, October 16, 2015

L.A. Teacher of Year fired for child abuse by new special committee

When a colleague complained that Rafe Esquith, the most celebrated teacher in Los Angeles, had made a joke about nudity to his fifth-grade students, the district called into action a newly formed squad of investigators to get to the bottom of it.

Internally dubbed the "tiger team," the unit was created last year in the wake of repeated sex abuse scandals that had long plagued the nation's second-largest school district. These investigators were supposed to cut through the bureaucracy's red tape and investigative backlog and quickly ferret out wrongdoing.

In Esquith, they had their highest-profile subject and their biggest test.

This week, based on the unit's investigative efforts, the school board behind closed doors voted unanimously to fire Esquith.

On Thursday, Esquith attorney Mark Geragos criticized the inquiry into his client and slammed the unit as "an investigative hit squad" that was determined to find wrongdoing by probing, if necessary, into every aspect of an employee's life.

District officials defended the work of its investigators, saying they've brought professionalism and a faster resolution to complex cases, which is better for teachers and for students. They said that nearly half of the employees investigated by the unit returned to their jobs.

The team includes seven full-time investigators, a supervisor and two forensic specialists. Among them are former L.A. Police Department detectives and a former investigator with the L.A. County Sheriff's Department. Three former administrators review their work, and the unit is headed by Jose Cantu, who's been with the district for more than 30 years, including 14 as a principal.

Also participating in the Esquith investigation is an outside law firm, a practice the district has reserved for especially sensitive cases.

Esquith qualified for special handling because he is one of the most famous and honored teachers in America, the subject of articles, a documentary and White House accolades. He's renowned for coaxing stirring performances of Shakespeare from Latino and Asian students who live in the working-class neighborhood around Hobart Avenue Elementary School. [...]

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