Sunday, June 4, 2023 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

L.A. ‘Teacher Jails’ Called a ‘Criminal Cartel’

LOS ANGELES (CN) - In a $1 billion class action, a teacher acclaimed for excellence by Oprah Winfrey, Disney and the United Kingdom says Los Angeles Unified School District and its superintendent run a "criminal cartel" that locks thousands of its best teachers in "teacher jails" under bogus accusations so it won't have to pay their retirement benefits.

Rafe Esquith sued LAUSD and Superintendent Ramon Cortines in Superior Court on Oct. 15 on behalf of all current and former teachers who were stuffed into LAUSD "teacher jails."

"The issue is fundamentally due process," Esquith's attorney Ben Meiselas told Courthouse News. "The allegations against these teachers are generated by a hit squad team through a McCarthyan investigation at odds with what it means to be an American."

Meisalas said LAUSD set up its teacher jails to oust teachers nearing retirement age so it can divest them of their benefits.

"It's fundamentally wrong and flawed and at odds with the Constitution," Meiselas said. "And the people leading it would not pass muster under their own investigation. They would fail on Day One based on their own conduct."

Similar class actions have been filed about teacher "jails" in other major school districts, including New York, where the jails are called "rubber rooms."

Teachers in "jail" have spent years doing nothing but show up, on full pay - an adult equivalent of study hall, on the public dime.

Critics of public education blame teacher unions and tenure protections for it.

Teachers and their unions blame cowardly administrators who refuse to bring cogent charges against teachers, for fear of embarrassing the districts that hired them.

Meisalas put it this way: "Which one are you going to trust: the thousands of teachers who made the sacrifice to dedicate their lives to public education, struggling to support their families, and who go to craft stores before the school year to buy things for their classrooms for the students? Or the administrators who got by based on mediocrity and were raised to positions where they earn over $100,000 a year and get administrative power that is self-perpetuating?

"Ultimately it's about the students and their education, and teachers as the conduit are forgotten" at LAUSD, Meiselas said.

Esquith's lawsuit says: "LAUSD operates as a criminal cartel, systematically denying its teachers any semblance of due process while detaining them in nondescript, fenced-in, warehouse facilities throughout Los Angeles County, which LAUSD refers to as 'Educational Services Centers' - but that teachers and the media have exposed as 'teacher jails.' LAUSD's teacher jails are expressly designed as a shrewd cost-cutting tactic, implemented to force its older and better-paid teachers out the door at the expense of the students these experienced educators serve."

LAUSD has treated at least 2,000 teachers this way, depriving each of them of about $500,000 in pensions and other benefits - a total of $1 billion, according to the complaint.

Esquith started teaching for LAUSD in 1984 at Hobart Boulevard Elementary School, which primarily serves first-generation, underprivileged students from the surrounding Koreatown and Westlake neighborhoods in Central Los Angeles.


He has won several awards, including the Disney National Outstanding Teacher of the Year Award in 1992, a fellowship from Johns Hopkins University, Oprah Winfrey's $100,000 "Use Your Life Award," the National Medal of Arts, and was made an honorary member of the British Empire after his students opened for the Royal Shakespeare Company at the Globe Theater in London. Sir Peter Hall filmed a documentary about his students' performance of A Midsummer Night's Dream in Los Angeles. Esquith also has written several books on education.

LAUSD fired Esquith last week, citing a 40-year-old accusation that he touched a student inappropriately, and the allegation that he told a joke while reading Huckleberry Finn.

In an Aug. 13 letter to Geragos, rejecting Esquith's tort claim, the district's liability claims coordinator said that the district had found evidence of sexually inappropriate photographs on Esquith's school computer, inappropriate emails to students, and threats to at least two parents.

Esquith can contest his dismissal before an administrative law judge. He first sued LAUSD in August this year, claiming the district, Superintendent Cortines and the district's general counsel defamed him by accusing him of telling an off-color joke in class after he cited a passage from "Huckleberry Finn" that mentioned nudity.

In the new lawsuit, Esquith claims that though he knew he did nothing wrong, he wrote a note apologizing for any misunderstanding - and was promptly sent to teacher jail, where a gag order prevented him from explaining his sudden absence to his students and their parents.

LAUSD hired investigators to yank his students out of class and harass former students to bully them into badmouthing him, but all of them refused to do it, according to the new complaint.

The school district also filed an abuse complaint against him to the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing, but the commission found the accusation unfounded, Esquith says.

He says his experience is hardly unique, but is part of a "remarkably consistent pattern" of removing experienced teachers from their classrooms and locking them up in teacher jail without explanation or opportunity to oppose their removal.

"Disturbingly, from the very outset LAUSD administrators label the teachers as immoral, unethical, thieves, abusers, or criminals, while at the same time LAUSD places teachers under a gag order. This is despite the fact that no criminal charges or even civil lawsuits exist," the complaint states.

Esquith claims that the administrators leading these "witch hunts" are the same people "who have been sanctioned by courts for concealing, manipulating, and destroying evidence of abuse, who are under FBI and other governmental investigation for misappropriation, are led by a superintendent who settled a crotch-grabbing lawsuit for $300,000 of taxpayer money, and who argue in California Superior Courts and to a Court of Appeal (last month) that the age of consent is the same one endorsed by ISIS." (Parentheses in complaint).

That age of consent would be a child in eighth grade - 13 or 14 years old, Meiselas told Courthouse News.

Esquith says that teachers forced to report to a teacher jail are stuffed into a cubicle "while administrators patrol the hallways and prevent teachers from talking to each other."

The teachers must stay there for roughly 6 hours a day with only a couple of breaks and nothing to do but stare at the walls, a limbo that can last months or even years.

Esquith says LAUSD rarely informs teachers of the accusations against them and never gives them an opportunity to tell their side of the story - it just assumes they are guilty.

"Gag orders are imposed, teachers' entire lives are pried into by a school district acting as a rogue regime with its own rules unto itself, devoid of due process, all because the targeted teacher decided to sacrifice his or her life to public education. Teaches have described the experience as psychological torture, where they are deprived of dignity, and as an experience unlike anything matched in their entire lives," the complaint states.

If the jails get too full, teachers must stay at home and call LAUSD once a day "to prove that they are not doing anything productive," and deal with LAUSD investigators spying on them to make sure they are abiding by "their draconian sentences," the complaint states.

Most teachers eventually are fired or constructively fired after their stint in teacher jail, according to the complaint.

Esquith says LAUSD gets rid of its best teachers to "shave numbers off its bottom line."

"LAUSD admits that it cannot fund its benefits package for older teachers nearing retirement - who also tend to be at the top of the pay scale - and has decided to solve its funding shortfall by stripping its seasoned educators of their benefits based on secret, and almost exclusively baseless, allegations intended to force them to quit rather than endure a life sentence in teacher jail," the complaint states.

Meisalas added: "The scale and scope of the issue is unprecedented and the number of teachers with the exact same story is shocking. Not all of them are internationally recognizable figures. Based on this class action, they felt they could come forward and stand against this LAUSD bully."

Other states have similar teacher jails, such as New York's rubber rooms, set up as "pernicious" cost-saving schemes, but LAUSD's "is a particularly virulent strain of the teacher jail system," Meiselas said.

"One of the few carrots for teachers is their retirement benefits," Meiselas said. "If we as a society want people leaving college to become teachers, taking away retirement benefits is not the way to encourage them to do it.

"LAUSD sets a bad example when it destroys teachers' lives this way."

Los Angeles Unified School District did not respond to requests for comment.

Veteran schoolteachers told Courthouse News that it's not unusual for school administrators to seek out and punish excellence.

"Bad administrators hate good teachers," a longtime public schoolteacher told Courthouse News. "I've seen it time and time again.

"Good administrators like them. But there are a lot more good schoolteachers than there are good administrators."

This teacher, and others, told CNS that teachers who feel they are underpaid often go into administration. Administrators who want to fire a teacher - good or bad - often hesitate to do so, fearing "bad publicity" for the district, whether the allegations prove substantive or not.

Esquith seeks class certification, an injunction against holding teachers in teacher jails, and $1 billion in punitive damages for due process violations, age discrimination, whistleblower retaliation, and wrongful termination.

Attorney Meiselas is a member of Geragos & Geragos.

Read the Top 8

Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.