By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
That fall, two grown men walked onto the athletic fields and pistol-whipped a student to the ground as his classmates watched. The boy had a seizure, and began convulsing. Paramedics arrived at the scene before the school nurse did. "That had a major impact on everybody," Rosa Cuevas recalls. "We were just tired of having so much violence at school."
A small group began gathering to talk about things that bothered them at Locke. There were initially no concrete plans to organize, only to vent. "We were just saying everything that we thought was wrong," says Cuevas. The more they listened to one another, the clearer it became to them that there were relationships between the violence and the lack of teachers and books, between the apathy of the staff and the apathy of the kids, that the entire school suffered from neglect, and the neglect extended well beyond the principal's office. They were, in the beginning, Cuevas says, nothing more than "a group of students that finally realized that it wasn't normal for us not to have books, for us to be constantly surveilled by cops."
Given the school's environment, the members of what would become the Locke Student Union kept their existence quiet at first. They approached only a few trusted teachers, Motevalli among them, who began to attend meetings as well. She "was there when we had problems," Cuevas says, and adds, smiling bashfully, "like a mom." "More than anything we were listeners," Motevalli says. "We were supporters and listeners. When students would lose their focus, we would help them keep their focus." The meetings continued through the winter, with about 30 people attending and a core active group of about a dozen. They began to invite parents and community members, representatives from various local activist groups, "anyone who would help them make a better school out of Locke."
Twice that winter, search teams came to Motevalli's class. Both times, she says, they came in the middle of class, disrupting her lesson, and she asked them to leave. The first time, in December, they left without incident. The second time, in January, they called Webb, who sent Motevalli to wait in her office. The students refused to be searched and walked out of class in defiance. Webb was furious. She accused Motevalli of instructing the students to disobey her, and warned her that she would likely be suspended for her insubordination.
By March, the LSU had condensed their concerns to 10 demands. First on the list was "an immediate end to brutality toward students, including illegal searches and seizures, unlawful arrests, constant surveillance, and excessive use of force." They demanded qualified teachers in every class, and that teachers stay awake and not talk on cell phones. They demanded books and materials, the hiring of additional counselors, more extracurricular activities and sports, a well-rounded curriculum. They demanded an end to standardized tests like the Stanford 9, which they considered racist, and to be informed of their right to opt out of taking such exams. They demanded more "positive social events" like dances, field trips and, tragically, vigils. They demanded access to the school's budget to see how funds were being spent. In short, they demanded the right to have a voice in their education, and, more basically, they demanded an education. Before the semester ended, they would have to add an 11th demand: "The freedom to express injustice without retaliation toward teachers, students or parents."
RETALIATION CAME QUICKLY. IN anticipation, some students remained in the background. The honors students — like Rosa Cuevas and Lucia Ortiz, a student-council member and athlete who was, in Motevalli's words, "the darling of the school" — put themselves out in front, knowing they had less to fear than kids whose grades and disciplinary records made them more vulnerable. The one exception was Ivan Zuno, who remained consistently outspoken. It was Zuno who drew up the flier announcing the first open meeting of the Locke Student Union at the Watts Labor Community Action Center. It depicted students standing in front of Locke wearing striped convicts' clothing, with balls and chains shackled to their ankles. "What do you want your future to look like?" it read.
Webb soon began to keep a log on the activities of "the 'so-called' Student Union," or, as she also called it, "the underground group." Between the lines of the log's cursive scrawl, it is clear that Webb took the LSU's organizing efforts not as an impassioned plea for a livable, functioning school, but, with typically authoritarian paranoia, as a personal attack. Notably, Webb included the log in a "Staff Relations File" — from the start, she refused to believe the students were acting independently. On March 6, the day after she first recorded seeing a copy of the LSU's demands, she raised the matter at a faculty meeting. She announced, according to the log, that "students are being used to promote adult agendas. I also said that if any of you are involved with this you are walking on thin ice." Ami Motevalli understood the warning to be directed at her.
By the end of that week, the LSU had sent Webb a letter asking her to come to their next meeting to address their demands. She didn't respond, at least not directly. But from that week onward, the students say, life at Locke got harder. School staff stopped them in the halls to grill them on who else was involved. Teachers loyal to Webb lectured them in class on the futility of their efforts, saying, Cuevas remembers, "'You guys aren't gonna get anything done. You should stop trying.'" Lucia Ortiz recalls being taken aside by a counselor and asked, "'Are you sure you want to do this?'"