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A Life on the Right Track

HEARTS OF THE CITY

Alvindee Bell, 19, used to have an attitude problem. These days, he's being honored for bravery. A caring teacher helped turn him around.

May 29, 1996|PAUL H. JOHNSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It wasn't a big deal, Alvindee Bell proclaimed. A friend needed his help and he gave it, he said, tugging on the starchy sleeves of his white dress shirt in the corridors of Los Angeles City Hall last week.

Bell was waiting to receive a City Council commendation for what many have described as a remarkable act of bravery.

On March 20, the 19-year-old developmentally disabled youth was leaving his job as a junior lifeguard at Rancho Cienega Park when he heard the cries of a Dorsey High classmate. When he arrived at the scene, he found his friend being choked and fondled by a volunteer at the park, according to Assistant City Atty. Lynn Magnan-Donovan.

Bell, a tall, bulky teenager who can make a 45-foot shot put, raced to the girl's aid, threw her attacker off and fled with her toward a nearby pay phone. The attacker chased them, grabbing the phone out of the girl's hands as she tried to dial 911, Magnan-Donovan said. After eluding the man, they made their way to the Los Angeles Police Department's Southwest Division station, where they reported the incident. Police later caught the suspect, who was charged with assault and sexual assault. When he goes on trial June 16, Bell is expected to testify.

Magnan-Donovan said the suspect was dangerous and on probation for burglary when he allegedly committed the crime. All involved in the case agree that if Bell, a high school junior, had not answered his friend's cry for help, the girl could have been raped, possibly even killed.

That is why Councilman Nate Holden singled him out for praise, as did City Atty. James K. Hahn. Magnan-Donovan, the prosecuting attorney in the case, arranged for Bell's class to receive a special tour of the Criminal Courts Building last Friday, including a visit with three judges and a look at the courthouse's holding pen.

"He is simply a hero," Magnan-Donovan said. "If it were not for his actions, something serious would have happened to that girl."

The girl, a sophomore at Dorsey High, agrees. After Bell received his award, she broke into tears, saying she didn't want to think about what might have happened if Bell had not been there.

Bell's special education teacher, Renee Klein, said the incident revealed Bell's tremendous change in attitude from three years ago, when he first arrived at Dorsey High. Then, he was often angry and sullen in class and distrustful of others, Klein said.

Orphaned at the age of 8, Bell lived with a number of relatives before moving in with his aunt, Bessie Clemmons, in South-Central Los Angeles.

"He had a bad attitude about everything," Clemmons said.

But after two years in Klein's class, he started to calm down and began to make friends. Today, he is a playful youth who jokes with his classmates and brags about winning the city's Special Olympics shot put championship four years in a row. (He won his fifth title last Thursday.)

"He's not the same person he was a year ago," Klein said.

Some credit his transformation in part to the tireless efforts of Klein, who often works with her students seven days a week, even when school isn't in session, serving as instructor, coach and--for some--surrogate mother.

Saturdays at 6 a.m., she meets students to train for the Los Angeles Marathon, which class members have run for the last seven years. Students also compete in the Special Olympics, and Klein regularly takes them on trips--once to San Francisco, another time to Big Bear.

She also assists the youths in finding jobs, helping Bell obtain his lifeguard position and others find work at fast-food restaurants.

Klein is practically her own nonprofit organization, winning an average of two grants a year to buy clothing for her students, pay for trips or fund classroom projects. One grant paid for the T-shirts students wore to the marathon, another for their running shoes. Yet another helped fund a nutrition program. She estimates that she has received more than $1 million in funding since she started teaching 18 years ago.

"It's like a life's work for her," said Dorsey Principal Jerelene Wells. "She just cares."

Klein said she has always been very involved with her students. "Some of my kids have no family," she said. She believes her approach, which she describes as strict but caring, lets the class know that she cares about them, no matter what.

"When there is a lot of love and care, the negative behavior is extinguished," she said.

Magnan-Donovan has volunteered to help Klein and her students, saying she believes Klein's work is helping save lives.

As Klein and her class gathered at the City Hall ceremony to watch Bell receive his commendation, the self-effacing youth shrugged off the attention, preferring to whisper with his friends and comfort the girl who was the victim of the attack.

Helping those who need it is something he likes to do, Bell said, but he added with a mischievous grin: "I'm a devil sometimes, too."

The Beat

Today's centerpiece focuses on high school student Alvindee Bell, who came to the rescue of a girl who was being sexually assaulted. He is a special education student in the class of Dorsey High School teacher Renee Klein, whose efforts to help students extend beyond the classroom and include stressing the importance of personal responsibility. For more information about Klein's work, call Dorsey High at (213) 296-7102.

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