Law & Courts

Access Denied

By Blair Campbell — March 01, 2003 5 min read
After stopping officials from searching her students for weapons, a Los Angeles teacher was pushed from the classroom to the courts.

Ami Motevalli’s second-period students at Locke High School embodied the reason the art teacher had chosen the troubled institution in South Central Los Angeles over cushier spots in the San Fernando Valley. Many had criminal records; most were contending with difficult situations at home. But when Motevalli treated them with respect, they rewarded her with an eagerness to learn and often stunned her with the quality of their artwork.

Because she felt that Locke’s students were barely being educated in their other courses, Motevalli saw her art class as an opportunity to teach other subjects and skills as well, and she focused every second of her time on that effort. So when a dean, two campus aides, and two police officers showed up at her door in January 2001 to search her students for weapons, she delivered a softened version of a simple message: Go away.

Later that spring, school officials notified Motevalli, who had an emergency teaching permit, that her contract would not be renewed. She claimed she was let go because she spoke out against what she considered the mistreatment of students—and at first, the Los Angeles Superior Court agreed. This past October, a jury ordered the Los Angeles Unified School District to pay Motevalli $425,000: $137,500 in lost wages and $287,500 for emotional distress. But in January, LAUSD lawyers brought a judge around to their view that insubordination, not speech, was the reason the teacher’s contract wasn’t renewed, and the verdict was thrown out.

The motion effectively entered a judgment in favor of the district and nullified Motevalli’s award, but as of press time, the teacher and her lawyers were preparing to appeal. The final outcome will be of interest to any educator who’s been disciplined for refusing to adhere to school policies with which they do not agree.

Along with an aversion to having her class time interrupted, Motevalli says she had another reason for refusing to let the search team into her classroom. She believed that the school district’s random weapons searches, despite their express purpose of keeping kids safe, were actually being conducted in a brutal manner. In previous searches she’d witnessed, “I saw campus aides getting kids, throwing them up against the wall,” she recalls. “It was LAPD style.”

On that January day in 2001, Motevalli expressed these concerns to E.C. Robinson, the Locke dean who had also led the search team she had turned away just a few weeks earlier. This time, rather than retreat, Robinson summoned then-Locke principal Annie Webb, who strode into the classroom demanding an explanation. When Motevalli once again protested the search, Webb sent her out of the classroom.

Art teacher Ami Motevalli says she’s still getting used to being labelled an activist. “I was never the type to go out and march,” she claims.
—Photograph by Steve Goldstein

Motevalli had become somewhat of an advocate for students since arriving at Locke in 1999 and observing the antagonism between teachers, administrators, and students that often resulted in physical violence. “I had done a lot of research on what people could and couldn’t do in the school and just came to the conclusion that there are a lot of rights that are stripped from students,” she says.

In March 2001, that sentiment made it onto a list of demands—which also included one requiring “an immediate end to brutality toward students"—presented at a public meeting of the Locke Student Union, a group pushing for school reforms. Motevalli served as a sounding board and proofreader for the students drafting the demands, but she didn’t attend the meeting, worn down by whispers among colleagues and administrators that she was causing trouble at the school through her involvement.

Two days later, Motevalli was notified of an upcoming disciplinary conference with Webb; at that conference, she learned that her contract with the LAUSD would not be renewed. Because of her emergency teaching permit, Motevalli had no basis for appealing the decision.

“I was outraged,” says Lucia Ortiz, a freshman at California State University, Long Beach, who was in Motevalli’s classroom in 2001 when she turned away the search team. “She was one of the good teachers at the school....She made students feel like actual human beings.”

Ortiz firmly believes that Motevalli’s outspoken behavior was the motivation for her nonrenewal. That’s an allegation, also made in Motevalli’s lawsuit, that the district denies completely, says Scott Barer, the LAUSD’s associate general counsel. “This was an untenured, emergency-credentialed teacher who twice refused to allow proper and legal weapons searches in her classroom, even after being directed to allow them by her supervisor. And shewasn’t renewed because of it,” he says. “The bottom line here is, we’ve got a school and we want to protect the kids. Doing legal searches for illegal weapons is something that the district has decided is good policy.”

Even though such searches arebecoming more prevalent across the country, the LAUSD approach is more aggressive than most, says Lawrence F. Rossow, adjunct professor of law at the University of Oklahoma and coauthor of Search and Seizure in the Public Schools. But Rossow maintains that the legality of school searches— or even the manner in which they’re being carried out at Locke—is not what’s at issue in the Motevalli case. Rather, it’s the teacher’s right to express her views.

The free-speech question likely drove the initial ruling in Motevalli’s favor, Rossow argues. But, he adds, “once the school district gives you a direct order to do somethingas long as it’s reasonable, as long as it’s something that the ordinary teacher should have been expected to comply with—then you really don’t have a good basis for defending yourself.”

While Motevalli’s fate rests in the hands of the legal system, the teacher wonders if she’ll ever have a classroom again. “It’s still such a struggle,” she says. She acknowledges that her newfound reputation as an activist might be hindering her job search, and that’s a label she’s still getting used to.

“I was never the type to go out and march,” Motevalli says. “Certainly I’m outspoken, but I don’t speak out until I see something that’s just glaring.”

—Blair Campbell

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