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LA schoolteacher Rafe Esquith sues district for $1B

By Tomas Monzon
LA schoolteacher Rafe Esquith sues district for $1B
Celebrated Los Angeles schoolteacher Rafe Esquith filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of about 2,000 teachers in the district following an investigation that fired Esquith on claims that he made a joke about nudity to his fifth-grade class. Screenshot via CBS 2 Los Angeles

LOS ANGELES, Oct. 17 (UPI) -- Teacher Rafe Esquith filed a $1 billion class-action lawsuit on behalf of nearly 2,000 teachers against the Los Angeles Unified School District.

The suit follows the school board's closed-door investigation into claims that Esquith had joked about nudity to a fifth-grade class in March.

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Following the investigation, the board voted unanimously to fire Esquith, 61, who is considered one of the district's most well-known teachers. He has earned the support of actors Hal Holbrook (Mark Twain Tonight, Men of Honor, Lincoln) and Sir Ian McKellan (The Lord of The Rings, The Hobbit) who praise Esquith's effort to teach classic literature by Mark Twain and Shakespeare.

The suit alleges abuse of disciplinary measures by school board personnel to fire older teachers in order to avoid paying retirement benefits. It says the way Esquith was treated follows a pattern in which aging teachers are suddenly ousted from their classrooms and put into "teacher jail" -- time spent on leave waiting for the outcome of an investigation that typically sees them fired.

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The suit also claims the line of questioning by LAUSD investigators during Esquith's investigation was inappropriate, and beyond the scope of the initial complaint.

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After a staffer complained about Esquith's joke in class -- in relation to a passage from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn where a character performs naked on stage -- Esquith was removed from the classroom on April 10. At a meeting with investigators on May 27, he was allegedly asked questions such as "What teachers don't like you?" Students were also allegedly asked questions such as "What creepy things did teacher X do?" Six former students told CNN nothing inapproriate took place with Esquith.

Esquith, whose Hobart Shakespereans acting troupe has given working-class and immigrant-family students the opportunity to perform Shakespeare, had an outside law firm working on his case. LAUSD uses this method for sensitive cases like Esquith, who is a public figure.

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The school district's attorney said 170 of its 31,748 teachers are currently suspended for alleged misconduct and that it's likely fewer than half of those will return to school.

Legal analyst for CNN and Esquith's lawyer and Mark Geragos, said he seeks the complete shutdown of the "corrupt" district that has tarnished Esquith's reputation through "scandalous leaks." He said LAUSD investigators compose a "hit squad" bent on finding wrongdoing.

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Details of the allegations against Esquith were obtained by CNN from correspondence sent to Esquith and from a statement by the district superintendent, Ramon Cortines. These include discussing nudity in class, allegedly buying food for students without parents' permission and allegedly physically abusing a boy at a Jewish camp 40 years ago, a decade prior to the start of Esquith's teaching career.

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