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Locke Down 

Two years ago, a group of Locke High School students demanded something they weren't getting— an education. They got one, all right.

Thursday, Feb 6 2003
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Page 7 of 8

Blown off yet again, the LSU persisted. The semester drew to a close, and the ACLU filed a lawsuit against the district on behalf of Locke students, demanding that the LAUSD cease searching kids without reasonable suspicion. That suit would become yet another source of disappointment. All but three of the plaintiffs would drop out before it was settled. Those who stayed on alleged that after the initial media flurry subsided, the ACLU seemed eager to abandon the case, and pressured them into a settlement that amounted to a surrender. District lawyers interpreted the settlement to involve "no material change in district policy," requiring them only to send all high school principals a letter explaining the pre-existing search policy.

Over the summer, Locke students attended school-board meetings and delivered nervous but impassioned pleas for help. At a meeting on gun violence, they begged the board not to simply further militarize the schools, but to prevent bloodshed by providing educational opportunities. At a meeting on school funding, they begged the board not to just throw money at the school, but to make sure it was spent on students. They pleaded not just for material changes at Locke, but for once to be heard — not to be patronized and ignored, but to be listened to and respected. "Treat us like humans," Rosa Cuevas insisted.

Some of the board members were visibly moved, and nearly all of them chimed in to deliver the requisite promises. "Your words are heard," Marlene Canter reassured them. Mike Lansing promised to meet with the students (and later did so). Superintendent Roy Romer, though he never acknowledged the actual students gathered before him, did somewhat distractedly admit that Locke had problems, and that they needed to be addressed.

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Ivan Zuno did not go to those meetings and largely avoided the Locke campus. One day that summer he would nonetheless be arrested, he says, for simply walking in front of the school. After holding him for two hours, a school police officer let him go with a trespassing citation. When he showed up in court, he learned the charge had never been filed, "but going through it really sucked. Everybody saw me in handcuffs. I didn't like it," he says with typical understatement.

 

BEFORE THE END OF THE SUMMER, George McKenna was asked to resign (he is now an assistant superintendent in Pasadena) and was replaced by Sylvia Rousseau. By November of 2001, Annie Webb had been relieved of her duties at Locke — she is currently on medical leave from the district, and will fill a yet-to-be-determined administrative position when she returns. Other administrators were transferred out, and more left of their own accord. Last January, Gale Garrett began work as Locke's principal. A former student and teacher at Locke, Garrett is — students, parents and teachers say — consistently engaged with the school and receptive to the community. When racial tensions began to flare up at Locke last year, one teacher says, Garrett "was going around to classes and asking kids what she can do. It was unheard-of."

Under the watch of Garrett and Rousseau, Locke is, by all accounts, a different place. The hallways are calm and orderly, violence is down, materials are no longer in such wretchedly short supply, and teachers are being held accountable for their students' education. The changes may still be more environmental than substantive — problems as deep-rooted as Locke's don't go away in two semesters — but for the first time in too many years, says one community member whose daughters attended Locke, "It's like a school. It's being conducted like a school."

Almost everyone interviewed for this story agreed that a good portion of the credit for this profound but rather baffling accomplishment — the transformation of Locke High into something resembling a school — belongs with the members of the Locke Student Union. Locke's abysmal test scores attracted a team of state auditors in October of 2001, which would have forced the district to act eventually, but without the students' persistent activism, the district would not likely have acted so swiftly and decisively.

Among the few officials who were willing to talk about Locke at all, none was particularly eager to speculate about how the school could have been allowed to deteriorate so disastrously, to accept responsibility, or to assign it to anyone other than past administrators now safely out of the way. (And there were precious few who were willing — Superintendent Romer declined to be interviewed for this story, as did Webb, through her attorney; Rousseau was unwilling to comment at all on Locke's past, which limited somewhat her ability to speak sensibly about Locke's present; Garrett did not respond to repeated requests for an interview.)

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