Teacher’s Huckleberry Finn Joke Leads to Investigation, Firing

Mark Twain (Topical Press Agency / Hulton Archive / Getty)
Topical Press Agency / Hulton Archive / Getty
Los Angeles, CA

On Tuesday, a nationally recognized teacher in the Los Angeles Unified School District was fired in a unanimous vote by the Los Angeles Board of Education after a joke about Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn led to a broader investigation.

Rafe Esquith, 61, who has taught at Hobart Avenue Elementary School–the second-largest elementary school in the United States–since 1984, is accused of making an off-color joke referencing Huckleberry Finn, but more significantly, accused of inappropriately touching students during his tenure, according to the Los Angeles Times.

In April, Esquith was removed from the classroom following an accusation from another teacher that he had joked that if he could not raise enough money for an annual Shakespeare play, students would be forced to dress naked as did the king in Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. That accusation led to others alleging his inappropriate contact with students, and still others alleging his mishandling of a nonprofit.

Esquith’s attorney, Mark Geragos, responded to Esquith’s firing by claiming the district wanted to fire Esquith because he was nearing retirement, adding that he would file a class-action lawsuit “on behalf of thousands of teachers who all attest to the pattern and practice of the District to gin up false complaints to divest teachers of their benefits as they near retirement age.”

In June, Los Angeles Unified Superintendent Ramon Cortines stated, “While I respect that this teacher is extremely popular–and has been for some time–in the briefings that have been given to me, there are serious issues that go beyond the initial investigation.” The district sent a letter in August to Esquith’s attorneys claiming Esquith may have committed “ethical and district policy violations” connected to his Hobart Shakespeareans non-profit theater group for children.