|Photos by Slobodan Dimitrov|
THREE YEARS LATER, SITTING IN AN EMPTY coffee shop with nowhere else to be on a Tuesday afternoon, Ami Motevalli remembers the day she was hired to teach at Alain LeRoy Locke High School. Motevalli, tall with thick, dark hair and almond-shaped eyes that seem incapable of hiding emotion, knew she wanted to teach. She knew that Locke nestled a few blocks from Watts in a neighborhood of small stucco houses and wide, flat streets dotted with liquor shops, taquerías and storefront AME churches had not had an art teacher for years. An artist herself, Motevalli was excited by the challenge of starting a new program, especially at a school that so badly needed one. She drove down for a round of interviews and, at the end of the day, was told she had the job. Unable to wait to give her mother the good news, she stopped at a church to use a pay phone. "I was so excited," she says, "I told everyone at the church that I just got this job. The people at the church said, 'Well, maybe you can do something about it, but be careful. Wear your vest.'"
It was not, in the end, a bulletproof vest that Motevalli would need, but a different sort of armor, one that might protect her vital organs from the soul-shriveling assaults of apathy, petty vindictiveness and demagogic paranoia generated when a stagnant bureaucracy goes rank. A few days later, at the Los Angeles Unified School District headquarters on Grand Street, Motevalli would get a subtler but more realistic warning about the trials that awaited her. Qualified teachers were no less scarce in 1999 than they are today, and Motevalli was a desirable candidate. She had no teaching credential, but she had a master's degree and a year of teaching experience, and she wasn't just trying the job on for size. When she went in to fill out the paperwork required to begin at Locke, a district official asked her, "Why do you want to go there? Wouldn't you rather go to this school in the Valley?"
Former Locke teacher
Motevalli went to Locke regardless. Before we follow her there, be warned that this is not yet another Blackboard Jungle, TV-ready tale of a tough but idealistic teacher who against all odds sways her wayward students from the lures of ghetto life onto the path of middle-class achievement. There is more real heroism and cold tragedy to it than that. Its lessons are hard to pinpoint. The losers here win, and the winners lose. This is not in fact Motevalli's story at all, or not just hers. It is the story of a group whose voices are almost entirely absent from the public discourse on education, but who at Locke demanded that they be heard the students themselves.
Like Motevalli, they too had been warned. Sitting in the shade in a Cal State L.A. courtyard, Rosa Cuevas, a shy 18-year-old Locke graduate with big, round eyes, long, straight hair and a soft voice that retains traces of an early childhood spent in Mexico, remembers being scared of Locke. Growing up in the neighborhood, she heard rumors "that people got killed there every day." When she found that the violence wasn't nearly as constant as she'd heard, Locke didn't feel so bad. "Things did seem kind of weird," Cuevas says, but she didn't think much of it. Since elementary school, she says, "I thought everything was supposed to be the way it was. Nobody ever opened up my eyes to seeing that everything was wrong."
Premium Seating: Los Angeles Angels v TEXAS RANGERS
TicketsFri., Sep. 9, 7:05pm
Los Angeles Angels vs. Texas Rangers
TicketsFri., Sep. 9, 7:05pm
UCLA Bruins Football vs. UNLV Running Rebels Football
TicketsSat., Sep. 10, 5:00pm
UCLA Bruins Women's Soccer vs. San Diego University Toreros Women's Soccer
TicketsSun., Sep. 11, 5:00pm
Ivan Zuno, short with small features, tiny hands and lively, energetic eyes, was in Cuevas' class, and started out with her in the honors program. In a booth at a Jack in the Box not far from the fast-food restaurant where he now works, Zuno says that at first he didn't notice anything particularly disturbing about Locke either, just "the usual things that you see at other schools, the typical fights and stuff like that, but nothing too crazy." Only gradually did he begin to notice "small little things that were missing, things that were just normal in other high schools" things like books and teachers.
To Ami Motevalli, it was clear right away that something was very wrong. Physically, Locke was falling apart. There were pigeons nesting indoors. There were rats. Trash covered the floors, and there were no garbage cans in the halls. "I found out later they were afraid people would start fires in them," she says. But the dirt was the least of it.
When a team from the California Department of Education finally got around to investigating Locke, they found a "chaotic, fragmented and dysfunctional . . . environment in which students cannot focus on learning and teachers on teaching." More than 80 percent of Locke students were classified by the state as "socioeconomically disadvantaged." Over a third were new to the English language, and a third of their teachers were new to teaching like Motevalli, hired with emergency credentials. On the most recent California Standards Test, just 3 percent of Locke students were classified as "proficient" in English and language arts, and 39 percent were classified as "far below basic." In high school mathematics, none were considered proficient, and over 60 percent ranked far below basic.
In one of her classes, Motevalli was given a roster with 60 names on it, 40 of them special-education students, and 10 of those classified as severely emotionally disturbed. "The classes were large," she says, "but they shrank down" only because there weren't enough seats. "Generally when students come to a classroom and they see that there's no place for them to sit, they don't come back."
There was no set curriculum, so Motevalli was asked to create one. She had no materials for her art classes and had to pay for them herself, which "meant that I could not pay my phone bill the first two months. After the second month it got shut off," she laughs. She had no books and no slides for an advanced-placement art-history class. "I would stand there and just sort of make a physical shape with my hands to show the kids what a ziggurat looks like." She complained to the principal, Annie Webb, and was repeatedly told the books were coming. They finally arrived in March the A.P. exam is in May only after one of Motevalli's students complained to a visiting auditor from the state Education Department. "This was advanced placement," Motevalli stresses. "Advanced placement got priority."
When they did have books, says Ivan Zuno, there were never enough. They were usually old and out of date and missing pages, and several students would have to share a single book. Only very rarely were students permitted to bring a book home, and some teachers were forced to employ the rather medieval pedagogical method of having students copy passages verbatim from the few available books. Until the arrival of Motevalli and Simone Shah another new hire who started at the same time as Motevalli Zuno's art classes had no supplies at all, he says, just "pencils and paper."
While they give enormous credit to some teachers, Motevalli and Shah among them (Zuno says he doesn't know how he would have gotten through his first years at Locke without Shah's support; Cuevas can't help but smile each time she mentions Motevalli's name), Zuno and Cuevas remember others who might as well not have been there, and some who simply weren't. In "certain classes I passed just showing up one or two days. The teachers were just halfway there," Zuno says. "The students weren't focused 100 percent on school," he admits, "and then when you have a class of 60 students and a teacher who's frustrated, the last thing that goes on is teaching." Cuevas remembers teachers sleeping through class, others leaving their students unsupervised to take cell-phone calls in the hallway. "I actually thought that was normal for a while."
Motevalli did not. She became increasingly disturbed not only by the staff's apathy, but by what she describes as a general atmosphere of hostility at Locke. Both during and between classes, the halls were filled with students. "Teachers, administrators, campus aides, police officers were constantly yelling at the kids, calling them names." Discipline was a problem, in class and out, but the administration's reactions were erratic at best. She would send students who acted up to the dean's office, but "there was no follow-up, or the follow-up was too severe." She recalls going to a dean at the end of the school day. "At 3:16, right after she signed out, I asked her, 'Can you help me out with this student?' She literally blew up at me, 'I'm off the clock!' That was the type of response I felt I was getting, period. It was hostility, anger and irritation. It was like, 'Just go baby-sit, don't complain.'"
Much of the staff had eased into what another teacher calls a "just-collect-the-paycheck mentality." One longtime teacher, a good friend of Webb's assigned to Motevalli as a mentor, laid it out for her. "These kids are not gonna do their work," Motevalli remembers being told. "Just go in there, give them whatever you can, that's it. You can't have any expectations." The students didn't care, their parents didn't care, so why try? Despairing of help from the administration, Motevalli began to call parents on her own, to visit the homes of students who were having trouble in class. "When I called houses," she found, "whoever I talked to parent, guardian, grandma, grandpa, whatever they cared. Very rarely was there someone who just didn't care."
Many of the students cared too, and more of them likely would have cared if they had ever been allowed to expect something better, if anything had ever been expected of them. They cared that some classes were taught almost entirely by substitutes, often a different one each day, and some were simply minded by security guards. Cuevas' 10th-grade math teacher left Locke at the beginning of the second semester. "They had to transfer him out of the school for some sexual-harassment issues," she remembers. He was replaced by a series of subs, few of whom even tried to teach the material. She didn't learn anything for the rest of the year. "They just gave us a final in the end, and that was it." Cuevas studied on her own and passed, but other students in similar situations often failed because no one had ever taught them the material they were being tested on. Enough failed classes means no diploma, which means little hope of escape from the two possibilities stretching in front of too many inner-city kids: a grim chain of demeaning, low-wage jobs or, grimmer still, prison.
Locke today: By all accounts,
a different, better place
The latter prospect was all too real at Locke. When there weren't enough subs to go around, some classes would go completely unsupervised. With hallways constantly packed with students, racial tension and intergang rivalries had ample opportunity to boil over into violence. The administration's reaction, students say, was never to deal with the causes of violence, not to hire more teachers, but to further militarize the school, hiring additional security guards, installing cameras, searching more students with metal detectors. None of it helped. Even as fights began, students complained, school authorities rarely acted, intervening only once things had flown out of control, and then doing so with indiscriminate brutality. "Kids were just hogtied," Cuevas says. "They were slammed on the floor. When somebody tried to stop the fight, they were Maced too. The police would just run in the middle of the circle and spray everybody around them."
Then there were the searches. "I got searched different times for different reasons," says Ivan Zuno with a nervous laugh. Sometimes he was searched after getting in trouble, but mostly, he says, it was when he had done nothing wrong. The district had, and despite the allegedly lackluster efforts of the ACLU, which sued the district on behalf of several Locke students still has, a policy of random metal-detector searches intended to deter students from bringing weapons to school. A team of administrators, campus aides and school police is supposed to randomly select a class, and with minimal disruption of the lesson in progress, randomly select students to be searched, patting them down only when the metal detectors go off. At Locke, students say, the searches were almost never random. Students were selected at the whim of a dean. Those chosen were generally taken into the hallway and, in full view of any students walking by, lined up against a wall and frisked.
Sometimes all students arriving late would be searched as they came in. Sometimes school police would grab students as they walked through the halls and pat them down on the spot. Once, while hundreds of students were attending an assembly, principal Annie Webb announced that someone had tagged up one of the boys' bathrooms, and that every single student would be searched for spray paint as they filed out of the auditorium. Nothing was found in Zuno's backpack, but the suspect cans of paint turned up in another backpack along with a sketchbook containing, among many drawings, one signed by Zuno. Webb told him he would be arrested, he says, if he didn't either cop to the crime or tell her who did it. He refused, and nothing came of it, but their relationship, which had once been fairly genial she had at one point talked to him about redesigning the school's logo and repainting the faded lettering on the gym went permanently sour.
From then on, says Zuno, obviously still hurt by the accusation, Webb saw him as just "part of the mix, part of the crowd that didn't care, that didn't have a plan in mind." He had been getting in trouble more and more, and his grades began to drop. In the eyes of some school staff, Zuno became precisely the sort of kid who couldn't be taught and wasn't worth the effort. To others, though, everything that was wrong with Locke was evident in the way the school failed Ivan Zuno. Simone Shah, who taught Zuno for two years and remains friendly with him, calls him "a phenomenally talented artist, ridiculously so, and an incredibly smart kid. At any other school he would have been excelling. He'd be accepted by the best art schools. At Locke he was failing."
THINGS ONLY GOT WORSE AS AMI Motevalli's first year at Locke progressed. One of her students came to her and told her she had been raped by a teacher. He was later arrested at the school. In May, just before 9 in the morning, a 17-year-old student named Deangelo Anderson, who had recently transferred to another school, was shot and killed across the street from Locke. He lay dead on the sidewalk for hours just yards away from his friends in the bungalow classrooms that line Avalon Boulevard before the coroner came to collect his body. Webb refused student requests for a memorial vigil on the grounds that Anderson was not a student at Locke.
Those incidents only added to Motevalli's frustration. "While students were supposed to be in class learning, they were getting beaten up, they were in unsafe situations, or they were getting arrested and getting processed, falling into the cycle," she says. "I felt like I was responsible. I felt like I was part of that institution and that institution was actually creating this situation. I felt like in every way we were working against the community." That next year, knowing that she was taking a risk Webb had a reputation for retaliating against outspoken teachers, and Motevalli, as an emergency-credentialed teacher, had little to no contractual protection she began to speak out at faculty meetings and on a committee of administrators, teachers, parents and students to which she had been elected. She complained about the shortage of teachers, the lack of books, the questionable constitutionality of the searches, and generally made herself an irritant to the school administration and to "the people who were there for a long time who were really interested in keeping things the way that they were."
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?'"
But it was Ivan Zuno who felt most of the heat. "It was constant. I would turn around and there's administrators on me or there's cops on me." They questioned him and, he says, even threatened him. One school police officer, Zuno says, warned him, "Watch your back, I'm onto you," and after that, "was just on me in every way, over nothing, just trying to see what I'm doing, trying to see what I'm up to."
The afternoon before the LSU's first open meeting, the students who had signed the LSU's letter were summoned to the principal's office, where they found Webb and three assistant principals waiting. Webb wrote in her log: "I stated that the purpose of the meeting was to provide an opportunity for them to meet with me and share their concerns and suggestions."
Cuevas remembers it differently. "She tried to explain to us why we couldn't have our demands. She went through them one by one. They all just sounded like excuses to us, that we couldn't have these things. But they were basic necessities."
"I addressed each of the demands on the list," Webb wrote. "Many of the students clearly did not understand what they meant. I told students that I was aware the demands were not their issues based upon the wording and interpretations of the meaning. Lucia [Ortiz] said, 'What, Ms. Webb, you don't think that your students can think like this?'
"I said, 'Lucia, that's not it at all . . . this is not your terminology. These are teacher demands.'"
The students were understandably insulted. Not only had Webb instantly denied them everything they had asked for, she would not even accept that they had the vocabulary to articulate their needs. "All we wanted was for her to support us so that we could talk to the district and the district could pay more attention to us," Ortiz says. Instead, "She basically tried to shut us down."
She failed. The LSU's meeting went on as planned, and though Webb did not attend, about 100 others did students, parents, teachers, community members. "We were in awe," Cuevas says. The students left the meeting energized, certain that, despite Webb's opposition, they had sufficient support to make a difference. The following week, Ivan and other students went over Webb's head to a community meeting held by George McKenna, superintendent of local District I (the bureaucratic subdivision encompassing the section of South Los Angeles in which Locke sits) and once a nationally known school reformer who had been played by Denzel Washington in an HBO movie about his career. McKenna promised to look into the issues they raised the lack of books and other supplies, the administration's lack of responsiveness, the "random" searches. Again, the students left feeling hopeful.
Back at school, though, the harassment only accelerated, for teachers and students alike, and the consequences of speaking out at Locke became clear. Two days after the community meeting, Motevalli received a memo from Webb warning her to "refrain from using students to move forward with your own issues and concerns," and another announcing that she would soon be disciplined for refusing the classroom search three months earlier. And things got bad enough for Zuno that he accepted some rather strange advice from a trusted guidance counselor, who suggested that because he was having so much trouble, both academically and with the administration, he might be able to graduate more quickly if he dropped out of Locke and enrolled in an adult school. "I was thinking, 'Okay, I guess he knows what he's talking about,'" Zuno says. "So I did it, I checked out of Locke."
On April 2, posters appeared in the halls announcing that a school-sponsored community meeting would be held at Locke the next day and that McKenna and Webb would be there to address student concerns. That same day, Motevalli met with Webb to discuss her punishment for her earlier insubordination. On the form Webb had filed to officially sanction Motevalli with a five-day suspension, Motevalli noticed that "There was a box that she marked X and it said, 'Recommended to be dismissed from the entire district.' My heart just dropped. I. Had. No. Idea," she says, her eyes widening and her voice slowing to emphasize the shock of it, "that that could happen." In the span of a few minutes, she had been not only suspended but fired, and not only fired but prevented from working as a teacher again in Los Angeles, and likely anywhere else. Motevalli was devastated. She went to the meeting nonetheless.
Excited by the prospect of a public audience with Webb and McKenna, the LSU had invited Los Angeles Times reporter Solomon Moore, a representative from the ACLU and about 20 supporters from the neighborhood. None were allowed to stay. Webb told them the event, though billed as a community meeting, was open solely to Locke High School staff, students and parents. She personally escorted Ivan Zuno out of the room, and handed him over to school police. "She told me, 'This meeting is only for students, teachers and community members,'" Zuno remembers. "'You're none of those. We have a cop outside waiting for you.'" That, he says, "is when I realized why [the counselor] gave me that advice." Only after the father of another LSU member intervened was Zuno allowed to leave without being arrested.
He didn't miss much. According to students, parents and teachers present, Webb and McKenna refused to allow any LSU members to speak, or even to ask questions at the end of the meeting. McKenna reported the findings of his "investigation" of the issues students had raised. "Each one of those things which I investigated turned out not to be true," McKenna says. The students' complaints were, he remembers, simply "inaccurate."
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.
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.)
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.
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.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss LA Weekly's biggest stories.