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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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But even Locke's former students know better than to lay all the blame at the feet of Annie Webb, or any other individual. And there is little reason to believe that any of the systemic problems that allowed Locke to fall apart have been solved — this fall's crisis at Washington Prep, where teachers complained that the campus was dangerously out of control, suggests otherwise. The entire district failed Locke's students for years, and that failure was and is tolerated by a society that prefers nearly any distraction to considering the circumscribed fates of impoverished, urban youth. As violence rose in the inner city, says Lucia Ortiz by way of explanation, "Adults became afraid of youth, and instead of dealing with us, they just threw us away, especially in our area. I guess we were the shame of society."

Today, everyone involved in the Locke Student Union has something to be proud of, though rarely without some degree of bitterness. Rosa Cuevas evinces little ambivalence about the LSU's victory. She's at Cal State Los Angeles now, and plans to enroll in the university's credentialing program, so she can go back to Locke as a teacher when she finishes her degree. "I feel like if I'm there and," she laughs, blushing a little, "if Ms. Motevalli comes back, we can do lots of positive things."

Lucia Ortiz is another LSU success story. She's also in college, at Cal State Long Beach, where she is thinking of studying political science and maybe, as a result of her experiences at Locke, getting involved in city politics. Unlike Cuevas, who goes back to Locke frequently and keeps in touch with friends there, Locke left Ortiz with an unpleasant aftertaste. She hasn't been back to the campus since graduating. "I deserve a break from Locke," she says.

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Ami Motevalli has been back to catch up with former students. If their enthusiastic embraces cheered her some, she was saddened by the residual hostility she still felt from some of the staff. Locke hasn't changed entirely. Motevalli has been unable to find anything but occasional part-time work. She lost her apartment, defaulted on her student loans and moved back in with her mother. In October, a jury awarded Motevalli $425,000 in lost wages and compensatory damage, affirming her lawyer's contention that her dismissal had violated her First Amendment rights, that she had been fired for speaking out. Motevalli felt vindicated, but only briefly. "When I won, I was really happy for about a week," she says. "Then I woke up one day and I was like, 'Wow, I'm still broke, I'm still sleeping on the floor, I still don't have a job.'"

It is unlikely that she'll see any of the settlement money soon. Late last month, Judge James C. Chalfant overturned the jury verdict. Dan Stormer, Motevalli's attorney, is confident she will win on appeal, but expects the process to drag on for another year. District officials have refused to say how much they've already spent on fighting Motevalli's case, for which they hired two high-priced law firms and a full-time trial consultant. Motevalli recalls that there were never less than five defense lawyers in the courtroom, and once as many as 11, all of them billing the district by the hour. "How many teachers could you hire with that?" Motevalli asks. "How many books could you buy?"

Ivan Zuno is at least as conflicted about Locke as his former teacher is. "In a way I have to feel proud about it," he says, just a few minutes left before he has to put on his uniform and head to work. "I know that we made a change. People are feeling what we did." Zuno left the adult school where he was enrolled when his family moved out of the neighborhood, and has been to two other schools since then, struggling to get his diploma while working full time. He's quick to take responsibility for his choices, but says he can't help but think that "If I would've gone to a different school, I definitely would've been somewhere else right now," probably in art school, or in some college somewhere, learning "something useful, something fun."

Zuno is still bitter about all the "stupid little struggles," as he calls them, the "stupid things that at other schools you don't go through — you don't have to worry about a principal harassing you." As he speaks, anger rises in his voice, and his well-maintained cool drops away completely. "I've seen people getting stabbed. I've seen people get shot in front of the school. Too many people got jumped. I've seen my friends go through cops beating them down to the ground, and this is all in school. What kind of environment is that for a student? It only needed to be changed." A tense laugh escapes him, and he shakes his head in disbelief.

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