Security officer Eugene Pettigrew stands outside a boys bathroom at Animo… (Genaro Molina, Los Angeles…)
Chris Tellez sat in class, his stomach grinding.
The 15-year-old felt fine in his first class two weeks ago at Animo Locke Charter High School 2 in Watts, but by second period he could wait no longer.
"I had to use the restroom," he said. "But the toilets are there in the open. There are no stalls or anything."
He went to the office and asked if he could go home. His mother was called and gave the go-ahead.
As he hurried to his home, which is behind the school, two older boys beat him up and stole his cellphone.
After an outbreak of vandalism last year, the school removed damaged privacy stalls from its two boys restrooms and did not replace them for months. Since last August, there has been one toilet stall — with no lock on the door — for about 315 male students.
Each day the boys face the choice of using bathrooms with little or no privacy, or waiting until they leave school.
Bathroom safety and hygiene have long been a major issue in the Los Angeles Unified School District. In 1999, then-Supt. Ruben Zacarias lost his job in part over his perceived failure to manage the school construction and maintenance program, including the condition of restrooms.
When Ramon C. Cortines briefly took charge of the district in 2000, he announced a back-to-basics reform plan of "books and bathrooms." Overhauling dilapidated buildings and addressing unsafe bathroom conditions was a major priority of a recent $19.5-billion school-bond construction effort.
Charter operator Green Dot Public Schools took over Locke in 2008. Its graduation rate was abysmal, graffiti marred the walls, fights broke out regularly, and students roamed the campus during class. Green Dot replaced most of the faculty, spruced up the aged campus, bolstered security and tried to instill a college-going culture. Locke students have since fared better than pupils at nearby traditional schools, but achievement overall remains low, according to a study by UCLA-based researchers. Still, Locke students are more likely than those at nearby campuses to graduate and to have taken courses needed for admission to a four-year state college.
But things like unusable bathrooms undermine that progress, teachers and students said.
"A student's basic needs must be met before they can reach their full academic potential," said one teacher, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of repercussions. "If hunger, physical safety and bathroom needs aren't being met, it doesn't matter how great a lesson or teacher is, that student will not meet the demands of the classroom."
The restrooms at Locke 2 have been poorly maintained for years despite the janitors' best efforts, teachers and students say. The remaining stall is positioned directly in front of the door, which has a hole where the lock should be — allowing a line of sight from outside the restroom into the stall.
Students said many boys avoid going to the bathroom altogether, preferring to wait until school is out. Some students find a way to go home briefly during school and then return — a somewhat risky move in the high-crime neighborhood.
School administrators were unaware that boys were leaving campus to use the restroom, said interim Principal Megan McCardle.
Chris and his brother Adrian, a senior, say they leave as a last resort, because their mother doesn't like them to miss class.
"I always tell them first, 'Deal with it, you don't need to come home,'" said their mother, Avelina Tellez, in Spanish. "But if they have nowhere else to go, what am I supposed to do?"
Teachers said they have repeatedly raised the issue with administrators and were told it was being taken care of. They also said teachers have been afraid to cause a fuss to avoid being perceived as adversarial to the administration.
The school began improving the bathrooms after an inquiry by a Times reporter.
A lock was added to the lone stall the day before the reporter visited the campus. A decision was made to install new stalls over the weekend, said Chad Soleo, who oversees the five schools on the Locke campus.
Security guards are now stationed outside the bathrooms.
Green Dot chief executive Marco Petruzzi said that what happened to Chris was "terrible," and he regrets that the stalls were not replaced before the incident.
Petruzzi said Green Dot management was aware of a need to renovate the bathrooms at Locke 2 and planned on doing so this summer. But he and other top officials were not alerted to the more urgent need for stalls, he said.
"The moment it reached upper management, we took action," he said. Petruzzi said he regrets that nobody expressed to him that "we have an emergency here, we need to repair this now and not wait until the summer."
Green Dot, which operates 18 schools in Los Angeles, has begun a review of all its facilities.
"We're going to take some steps to make sure this doesn't happen again," Petruzzi said.