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L.A. teacher fired for misconduct, or was it age discrimination?

This week, the Los Angeles School Board voted to fire Rafe Esquith, a nationally recognized teacher, over allegations of misconduct. But that's only one part of a bigger picture.

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Nationally recognized teacher Rafe Esquith – author of popular best-sellers such as “Teach Like Your Hair’s On Fire,” which revealed his unique approach to classroom management – has come under scrutiny by the Los Angeles school board for allegations that he may have behaved inappropriately towards the students under his charge.

This week, the board voted to fire him as a result of those allegations, which include the possibility that he may have made an improper joke and touched some of his students inappropriately. The Los Angeles Times reported that the vote took place behind closed doors, and officials close to the issue had little comment on the proceedings.

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According to the suit, Mr. Esquith was removed from his teaching position after he joked to students that, due to a lack of funds, they might have to perform a Shakespeare play naked – a joke the suit suggested relates to a passage from Mark Twain.

One of Esquith’s attorneys, Mark Geragos, believes that the firing and ongoing investigation were merely part and parcel of the school board’s aggressive tactics designed to remove older teachers from the classroom and avoid paying for their retirement benefits.

“They have what I would charitably call an investigative hit squad that goes out and basically intimidates and tries to extract statements from students that they then use for kangaroo-court style proceedings in order to get people to resign so that they don’t vest with their retirement benefits,” Mr. Geragos said at a news conference.

In response to the firing, Esquith and his lawyers filed a $1 billion class-action lawsuit against the school district, on behalf of himself and 2,000 other teachers who say they have been forced through “teacher jails” – being removed from their posts and forced to stay in an empty classroom all day instead of teach.

Mr. Geragos told reporters, “We get 20, 30, some days as many as 50 teachers who have complained about this, and it’s the same pattern over and over again,” adding that Esquith was "frustrated" about having been removed from his teaching position.

His other laywer, Ben Meiselas, told CNN that this lawsuit “is the largest class action by teachers in the history of public education.”

Esquith won the National Outstanding Teacher of the Year Award in 1992, but is perhaps most famous for his nonprofit work with the Hobart Shakespeareans, which worked to teach children from low-income and immigrant families the classic works of Shakespeare. The troupe has travelled around the country, and also to the Globe Theater in England, for their performances.