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Due Process for Teachers Is Not Certain

Laws guaranteeing public-school teachers due process before being terminated are what tenure is all about.  But what about teachers who are pulled out of their classrooms and placed on paid administrative leave for alleged misconduct ("Teacher files claim against L.A. Unified, blames controversy on joke," Los Angeles Times, Jun. 23)?  

That's the situation with Rafe Esquith, who teaches at Hobart Boulevard Elementary School in the mammoth Los Angeles Unified School District. I don't know Esquith, but the way he has been treated is outrageous.  His crime was joking to his 5th-grade students that if he was unable to raise enough money for the annual Shakespearean play, his students would all have to perform their parts naked like the king in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. After another teacher complained, Esquith explained the context of his remark to his principal, who assured him that he had nothing to worry about.

Despite the reassurance, Esquith was removed from the classroom in April.  Not one to back down, he hired famed attorney Mark Geragos, who filed a claim - a precursor to a lawsuit -  on Jun. 22.  It warned of class-action litigation involving scores of other teachers who found themselves in similar situations.

I believe that the LAUSD will return Esquith to his classroom after its absurd overreaction to a perfectly harmless joke by a highly regarded teacher.  But what is deeply disturbing is the vulnerability of public-school teachers.  If this could happen to Esquith, who has written three well-received books about teaching as well as receiving the National Medal of Arts award in 2003, what about other teachers?  Who protects them?  There are 3.2 million public-school teachers in the U.S. Every one of them will have to walk on eggs to avoid being called on the carpet.

Let's not forget that even if teachers prevail in defending themselves, the stress they endure and the stain on their reputation can be unbearable.  What's also disturbing is the silence of United Teachers of Los Angeles in the matter.  The union is supposed to represent teachers. Yet I haven't heard a word. 

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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