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by Anna Kunkin
Sunday, Jul. 29, 2001 at 7:38 AM
firstname.lastname@example.org Los Angeles, California
This is the second in a series of articles about Locke High School in South Central Los Angeles, where humiliating random searches are carried out against the students on a daily basis and where a teacher was fired for standing up for her students.
"Give us respect. Don't look down on us because we are teens; especially people of color from South Central," says Starlet, a high school senior from Locke High in Watts. "We deserve to be talked to like humans and to be taken seriously. Starlet is one of a group of students from Locke High, one of the more troubled schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District, who have come to address the Governing Board.
Lucia Ortiz, Crystal Carillo, Everardo Pastor and Starlet Brown have waited patiently for over two hours in a drab auditorium where observers sit in rows of gray upholstered seats watching the proceedings. The Board members sit in a Crescent shape on a raised dais at the front of the room, facing the audience behind rows of tables between portraits of President Bush and California Governor Grey Davis hanging on the walls. The Board Members all have placards in front of them with their names printed on them, and they each have a pitcher of water. We sit and watch them drinking water while they discuss the expenditure of millions of dollars for land, new buildings, and air-conditioning for school gymnasiums in the L.A.district.
The students sit patiently through all this, going over their notes until it is time for them to speak. And when they do, they talk about classrooms with no teachers or teachers who hand out crossword puzzles and then go to sleep at their desks. In a room where they have just heard about expenditures of millions of dollars being discussed, they talk about not having books to take home or supplies in their classes. One by one they get up and talk about the terrible violence on their campus; and it's not because of the students who attend, they say, or because of the rough neighborhood. No, they say, it's because they go to a school that spends more time trying to control them than to give them an education. They talk about the random searches that have been going on since 1993, where classes in session are disrupted while students are pulled out of classrooms to have their possessions gone through and their bodies searched by Deans and Campus Police. They tell stories of fights on the campus where these same Campus Police stand and watch without intervening until students are bloody or until an administrator appears.
"Some of the things I have experienced at Locke High School make me feel more like a prisoner or a criminal than like a safe student," says Starlet.
"The best way to prevent violence," says Everardo, "is to give us coaches, after school programs and teachers who want to teach: not to treat us like criminals"
After the students speak, the Board members show animation and passion for the first time all afternoon while they talk about how the needs of these students need to be addressed. No dollar figures or deadlines are mentioned; instead they are very excited about a proposal to encourage parents to ask if guns exist in the homes of their kid's friends.
Ami Motevalli is a 31year old art teacher who has been teaching at Locke High for 2 years. From the beginning she has been appalled by the conditions the students are struggling to learn under. "I saw students not going to classes because they were unsupervised or because there were no teachers in the classes," she says, "There were rules that were not clear; not concise, and that were constantly changed. I saw kids thrown up against the walls and getting maced by Campus Police."
I tell her about Johnny; a kid that talked to me on the sidewalk outside the school a few days before. Johnny told me that the cops have grabbed him several times. He says they just come up to him anywhere on the school grounds or in the hallways, unzip his backpack, watch everything spill out onto the ground, and then just walk away. "Oh no!" I'm aghast. "And how does that make you feel?" I ask. "Oh," he says, "It doesn't bother me too much. There's nothing I can do about it-so it's alright."
"That's the scary part' agrees Ami, "these searches are so dehumanizing, and these kids are used to them." That's what they mean by 'criminalizing;' that the students are subjected to it so much that it gets to the point where they get used to it."
"It was very hostile, she continues, " the students tried to stop it, and tried to say that they wanted it to stop. They basically want to go to school and learn. They want to go to a school where their teachers at least learn their names and give them a proper education."
She started mentioning some of these problems at faculty meetings; the need for supplies, for teachers, for the teachers themselves to learn conflict resolution, and was, for her efforts, asked if she had a problem with her job. She started talking to the students about their rights and helped them to organize a student union.
Eddie Villalobos, a student in her art class, says that Ms. Motevalli, was one of the very few teachers in the school who really seemed to care whether their students got an education. Ms. Motevalli took the class on field trips to see art, and helped him get involved with a Watts Tower's project. "But she wasn't an easy teacher," he says, "She'll try to force you to learn. The other teachers just care about getting paid. They don't have to do anything; all they have to do is show up and they get paid."
Because she had talked to the students about their rights, when her 2nd period class was picked for a "random search," Ms. Motevalli felt obligated to set an example for them. So when the Dean showed up at her classroom with the Campus Police, she informed them that her class was in the middle of a lesson and couldn't be disturbed.
"She stood up for us," says Eddie, " that means a lot to me and to all the kids. I went to my 6th period class that day, and when the teacher in that class asked me what had happened, I told her, and then I asked her if she would have done the same thing. She said no," he said, "She said she wouldn't risk her job; that it wasn't that important if we had to finish our work another day. She just didn't care. But Ms. Motevalli cares about us."
Ami Motevalli later received a letter informing her that she was being terminated and that her contract was not going to be renewed for the following year. This, ostensibly due to a poor review; although all her reviews prior to this incident had been stellar. There are currently two lawsuits filed: one in the Federal Court on behalf of the students, challenging the policies that are being used against them, and another in The State Court on Ms. Motevalli's behalf. She is hoping to get her job back and to continue teaching at Locke High School where she is sorely missed by her students.
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