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Suit Seeks to Stop Searches of Students

Education: A teacher allegedly fired because she opposed the L.A. Unified policy also demands her job at Locke High back.

July 13, 2001|DUKE HELFAND | TIMES EDUCATION WRITER

A teacher who was allegedly fired for protesting student searches at her campus sued the Los Angeles Unified School District on Thursday to stop the practice and reclaim her job.

Art instructor Ami Motevalli alleges in her lawsuit that daily searches at Locke High School are unlawful and violate the privacy rights of students.

Filed in Los Angeles Superior Court, the suit also contends that Locke High Principal Annie Webb and other district officials violated Motevalli's 1st Amendment rights after she refused to allow the searches in her classroom. Motevalli said she was disciplined, suspended and then fired for speaking out against the activity.

Motevalli's case is the second legal assault in two months against L.A. Unified's districtwide policy of randomly searching students for weapons on a daily basis at all middle schools and high schools--more than 120 campuses.

The American Civil Liberties Union and several students raised nearly identical concerns about the practice at Locke High in a lawsuit filed last month.

"I want to go back and make sure my students are not treated unfairly," Motevalli, 32, told a news conference Thursday at her lawyers' office in Pasadena.

In addition to echoing civil liberties concerns, the teacher's lawsuit contends that security is enforced erratically on the campus. At times, it alleges, security guards are slow to react to fights among students; other times, school police overreact and use excessive force.

Webb, the Locke principal, could not be reached for comment Thursday. But a top district official named in the lawsuit, school board President Caprice Young, defended the random searches as legal and effective.

"It's constitutional and I'm comfortable with it," said Young, who is named along with Supt. Roy Romer and George McKenna, the former subdistrict superintendent in south Los Angeles.

The district has been conducting random searches with portable metal detector wands daily for eight years in middle and high schools. The searches have not produced a single gun in that time, the district's police chief said. But Young and other officials view the absence of guns as evidence that the policy works.

"The response I've gotten from most students is that they feel safe because the practice is in place," Young said.

District officials insist that Motevalli--a second-year teacher with an emergency credential--was treated fairly after she began to protest.

The decision not to renew her contract for next year was based not on her vocal opposition to the policy but on evaluations of her teaching performance, one official said. Motevalli was a "provisional" teacher, meaning that she could be released at the end of each school year without the right of appeal.

"If you are deemed unsatisfactory, there is no obligation to renew you if you are provisional," the official said. "The evaluations [of Motevalli] suggest she wasn't doing a good job in terms of teaching."

Motevalli contends that Webb and other district officials retaliated against her after she refused to allow two separate searches in her classroom. She says she was given an unsatisfactory review because of her unwillingness to go along with the policy, and was suspended for five days the second time she refused.

She also spoke out against searches allegedly conducted at the school's front gate in which students were patted down and their bags emptied.

Motevalli provided her students with information about the constitutionality of the searches and served as an advisor to a student group that was protesting them.

Like the ACLU suit, the teacher's complaint alleges that male staff members improperly pat down female students and that students are searched without their consent.

Motevalli's suit depicts an unruly campus in which students wander the hallways unsupervised and school security guards stand by as fights erupt, with sometimes bloody results. Other times, the suit says, school police approach students with shotguns in hand.

Two Locke students who were at Motevalli's news conference backed up her portrayal of an out-of-control campus.

"The security let fights go on for 30 seconds [before stepping in]," said Rosa Cuevas, a senior.

Lucia Ortiz, another senior, said she has been searched once and the experience left bad memories.

Sylvia Rousseau, the new local superintendent in the south Los Angeles area, said she plans to make the concerns at Locke High School a top priority.

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