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Gadfly Is Inglewood District's Center of Contention

Charlotte Bell says she fights for 'the little people.' Her critics see abuses of allies' power.

November 29, 2003|Erika Hayasaki | Times Staff Writer

Charlotte Bell has never run for school board or been employed by Inglewood schools, yet this ex-gang member is a power to be reckoned with in the 18,000-student district.

Bell is a perennial gadfly who says she fights for the "little people." Her supporters say she is a deeply religious activist who aims to expose incompetence and corruption.

But her many detractors describe her as a politically connected muckraker with a reputation for threatening and harassing people.

Her name regularly pops up in lawsuits involving the school district. She has been sued for allegedly conspiring with board members to demote employees and for allegedly smearing people's reputations by spreading rumors about misconduct. She has been blamed in a lawsuit for allegedly causing one employee's stress-related death.

"People are scared to cross this lady," said Arnold Butler, a former Inglewood principal who is suing Bell.

Nearly every local government agency and school board has its gadflies -- community members who religiously attend public meetings, hoard documents and vigilantly question elected officials.

But Bell, 48, an unemployed cancer survivor who admits that she used to sell drugs, is unusual in being at the center of so much litigation.

Bell said: "I'm gonna always speak up. And I'm not going to stop until God takes me out."

She is really the one being harassed by people who are trying to silence her, Bell said. She said her car brakes have been cut and her tires slashed.

But the ultimate threat to shut her up, she said, was the one that now propels her.

Bell said she believes her son was framed a decade ago by people within the school system because she was criticizing the district. School officials say they had nothing to do with her son's conviction for several sexual assaults on young girls.

Her son, a 17-year-old Inglewood High School student at the time, is now serving a 32-year prison sentence. Bell said she paid her son's legal bills by selling drugs, which in 1993 landed her in prison for more than a year.

"When they took my son, they took my life," she said bitterly. "And now, my life has become the Inglewood school district."

*

Bell was sitting on a bench on an October morning at Los Angeles County Superior Court, eating dried pumpkin seeds and waiting for the preliminary hearing of Cresia Green-Davis, a school board member accused of welfare fraud and lying on her resume. Green-Davis is Bell's ally and friend. The case is headed for trial.

After the hearing, Green-Davis' attorney told a reporter that his client was no "welfare queen," but instead a low-income mother, who may have bent the rules but was only struggling to raise her two sons.

It is an excuse that touched a nerve for Bell.

"She didn't have no food for her kids," Bell said in defense of Green-Davis. "Sometimes she didn't even eat."

"If you were a mother," she said, "you would understand."

Bell was an orphan, born to a Korean mother and an African American father. Her non-biological parents adopted her as a toddler in Korea, Bell said, because she looked like the most helpless child.

But Bell's adoptive parents died of natural causes shortly after they brought her to the United States, she said. She ended up bouncing between foster homes, eventually living with a sister of her adoptive mother in South Los Angeles.

But she was troubled and always felt out of place, she said. She served time in juvenile hall, where she was introduced to gangs, she said.

At age 21, she gave birth to Charlovohn Bell. She has hardly spoken to the father since.

Bell said she met Green-Davis about 20 years ago on Queen Street in Inglewood, where they both lived. Green-Davis was the struggling mother of twin boys. Bell was "gangbanging."

"Ms. Davis befriended my son," Bell said. "She would fix him lunch."

Green-Davis, elected to the school board in 2001, could not be reached for comment for this article.

The two women have been registered to vote at the same address on West Queen Street, according to records. Bell said she never lived there, and they never lived together. She said she used the address because she didn't want people to know her real one.

Bell made her entrance into activism after her son was upset by the transfer of some black friends out of his elementary school class into special education. Bell said she suspected discrimination and began the scrutiny that led her to become a regular critic of the district.

In public discussion and in interviews, Bell has said her doggedness alarmed political leaders so much that they railroaded her son. Although she cannot pinpoint how, she said she believes that a former superintendent, George McKenna, Inglewood Mayor Roosevelt Dorn -- who was a judge at the time -- and certain faculty members in the district, set him up.

Both McKenna and Dorn have repeatedly denied such accusations.

"I had nothing to do with it," said McKenna, who served as superintendent from 1988 to 1994.

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