Faculty who worked under Principal Gilberto Samuel say they were retaliated against for speaking up about verbal abuse and sexual harassment to LAUSD.
Teachers and faculty members who worked at Johnnie L. Cochran Jr. Middle School reported years of verbal abuse, homophobia, sexual harassment, and misogyny from principal Gilberto Samuel. When incidents were reported to LAUSD officials, they were either ignored or used against the person who spoke up as a vessel for harassment and intimidation.
A receptionist at Cochran, who spoke on condition of anonymity, says they were constantly targeted by Samuel.
“He could not stand me,” they told Knock LA. “I knew he couldn’t stand me.”
Soon after Samuel arrived at Cochran, the receptionist noticed that their access to the school’s network of security cameras had been abruptly removed and that many cameras were either missing or damaged.
The receptionist’s partner brought them roses on a regular basis. In 2017, school staff threw the flowers away without the receptionist’s permission. The receptionist received a mysterious written directive in 2018 saying that teachers could no longer receive flowers. Every time the receptionist received roses going forward, she would then receive a note asking them to be removed. The notes, which appeared to be copied and pasted and had Wite-Out painted on the papers, came from no particular source.
Samuel’s influence extended beyond his own actions. Individuals that he favored would act on his part to harass and intimidate anyone who spoke out against him. If the harassment was reported, it didn’t take long for it to get back to Samuel.
In September 2018, according to the receptionist, the Cochran plant manager Kenneth Clark also harassed them. Plant managers are a type of custodial position that tend to the school’s plants and flowers. Clark allegedly trapped them in an office, told them, “We’re all alone now, you have no witnesses,” and refused to let them out of the room until they asked several times. It was one of many instances of sexual harassment from Clark that continued for more than three years.
When the receptionist reported the incident to Samuel, it got to Clark soon after. Clark cornered the receptionist on campus, claiming, “We always play like that.” Clark was then allegedly physically removed from the Cochran campus and reassigned to another school.
The receptionist says Samuel also harassed them directly. Every morning, he would allegedly kiss them and another faculty member on the forehead when they arrived at work. Other employees told Knock LA that he made lewd comments to many teachers about their bodies or clothes.
No matter how the receptionist was treated or who they reported it to, the harassment never really stopped. Their partner was also allegedly subjected to the same treatment. While standing on a public sidewalk in November 2017 just outside the Cochran campus, Los Angeles School Police Officer Michael Williams tried to tell him that he could not stand on a public street. The incident was caught on video. Williams had repeatedly harassed the receptionist’s partner in the past and was known to be favored by Samuel. A few weeks after the sidewalk incident, Williams was removed from duty and allegedly died by suicide several months later.
LGBTQIA+ teachers at Cochran were also frequently subjected to discrimination. Multiple teachers, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation, reported homophobic comments and microaggressions from Samuel and other faculty members. Teachers who even appeared to be gay were allegedly singled out.
“There was one person, a very outgoing gay man,” one teacher said. “He was gone within a week or two.”
A lesbian teacher who was at Cochran for at least ten years was written up multiple times by Samuel and targeted by his staff for her appearance and demeanor as a gay person.
“I was an out and open lesbian with a butch haircut — you could not mistake me for anything other than gay,” she said. After more than a decade at Cochran, she was transferred to another school by Samuel — a commonly reported occurrence, including Clark’s removal.
“There was a lot of hope, a lot of energy, and this guy destroyed it,” the teacher said. “It was a sinking ship.”
Teachers who have left Cochran, especially those who are queer, say they are afraid that the harassment they experienced could follow them.
“I’m afraid of getting an email or a phone call from a principal or an administrator,” the lesbian teacher said. “There’s a lot of PTSD, if you can call it that…it’s tough. You work so hard, have all of this improvement, and then you have some asshole take that away from you,” they said through tears.
One gay teacher with 20 years of classroom experience has struggled to find faith in teaching again after his time at Cochran.
“By the time I left Cochran, I never wanted to teach again,” the teacher said. “The gaslighting was the worst. Being told that the reason things were rough was because you were bad; being taught that things were fine, that you were the problem.”
Another teacher said that when a colleague left Cochran, that colleague warned them about Samuel’s behavior.
“He said, ‘You better watch out’ — like a soothsayer or an omen,” the teacher said. “He was trying to warn me.”
An LAUSD spokesperson said in a 2022 statement that “all student and employee-specific matters are private and confidential. The entire Johnnie L. Cochran Middle School community stands firmly against school harassment, discrimination, indifference, [and] bullying, and we work proactively every day to ensure the overall safety and well-being of all students and staff.”
The teachers and staff who worked under Samuel are still reeling from the treatment they experienced at Cochran. Some of them have moved thousands of miles away or taken jobs at other schools to escape the culture Samuel and his supporters enabled.
This article is the second part in a series on Johnnie L. Cochran Jr. Middle School. Cerise Castle and Erin Wisti also contributed to this report. Read the first installment of the series here.