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Teacher who sparked dustup over 'Rent' investigated in altercation

June 12, 2013|By Annie Kim and John Canalis

 A high school drama teacher praised by gay-rights advocates for staging “Rent” in 2009 after opponents deemed the Tony Award-winning songbook’s themes of AIDS and prostitution too racy for teens is under investigation following an altercation with a student, officials said Tuesday.

Ronald Knight Martin, 57, is on paid leave from Corona del Mar High School, pending a battery investigation, Newport-Mesa Unified School District spokeswoman Laura Boss confirmed.

Newport Beach police spokeswoman Jennifer Manzella said investigators are interviewing witnesses about an incident of non-sexual battery that took place on an unspecified date this year. 

Citing the confidentiality of a minor, Manzella declined to say whether the alleged victim was the teacher or the student. It was not clear whether the altercation took place on campus.

No one has been arrested, she added.

The district is “cooperating fully” with the police, spokeswoman Laura Boss said.

“N-MUSD employees are entitled to a right of privacy and due process under state personnel laws,” Boss said in an email. “The district is committed to observing these rights for all employees.”

Reached by phone, school board President Dana Black said, “We don't want to jeopardize the investigation, any side of it.”

Though police declined to release the names of those involved, the Newport-Mesa Unified School District released a statement that a drama teacher was under investigation by police and placed on leave.

District spokeswoman confirmed by email the teacher under investigation was  Martin.

Martin could not be reached for comment. He lists Newport Beach as his city of residence on his Facebook page, although his wife’s page lists Costa Mesa.

“Thirty-five years ago today I married the most wonderful woman in the world,” he wrote on his Facebook wall June 3. “Together we have raised four amazing sons. She is the love of my life. Happy anniversary sweetheart!”

Martin is best known in Corona del Mar, a tony coastal village within Newport Beach, for his involvement in a controversial production of the rock opera “Rent” at the high school in 2009.

Some members of the community had deemed the play’s adult themes, including prostitution and homosexuality, inappropriate for teenage performers, but supporters took those sentiments as a homophobic assault on free speech. The ACLU eventually sued the school district and settled out of court when administrators pledged to promote tolerance.

Martin told The Times in 2009 he initially chose the production after viewing a Facebook video featuring Corona del Mar students making anti-gay slurs and overhearing homophobic remarks on campus. His goal, he said, was to promote acceptance.

Fal Asrani, the principal at the time, denied allegations made by Martin that she bowed to pressure and pulled the plug on the production of “Rent,” saying she only wanted to review the script beforehand. She later left the high school for a job in Northern California.

“Rent” was delayed by Martin and replaced with another musical, “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown.”

But the original show did go on later that year. A toned-down version, “Rent: School Edition,” was staged in April 2009. Three protesters from the anti-gay Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan., gathered outside, as did about 200 gay-rights supporters.

The controversy continued beyond that night. Martin was placed on administrative leave in October 2009 for reasons not made public by the school district. Martin called the move retaliation for the dustup over “Rent” and later returned to work -- and the school stage.

Staff writer Jeremiah Dobruck contributed to this report.

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john.canalis@latimes.com

twitter.com/johncanalis

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