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Another Johnnie Cochran Middle School Student Speaks Out

After replacing former principal Gilberto Samuel following allegations of harsh discipline and retaliation against staff, the school still will not address the issues.

A fence of Johnnie Cochran Middle School. Next to it is a sign that says the school cares.
A sign at Johnnie L. Cochran Jr. Middle School says that the school “cares.” Faculty alleges abuse. (Joey Scott)

Earlier this year, Knock LA published a three-part series on allegations of misconduct at Johnnie Cochran Jr. Middle School. The series reported multiple allegations against then principal Gilberto Samuel, including accusations of sexual harassment, homophobic discrimination, and fostering a hostile culture toward Black and brown children. A little over three months after Knock LA published the series, news broke that Johnnie Cochran had replaced Samuel as principal with Soraya Drew

A current student from Johnnie Cochran Jr. Middle School reached out to Knock LA. The student, who asked to be identified as Yakko, entered eighth grade this year and alleges they faced discrimination as a Black student at Johnnie Cochran Jr. Middle School and that Samuel failed to intervene. They say the school has not addressed Samuel’s replacement as the principal nor has the school explained the reasons behind his replacement. 

“They swept [the fact Samuel is no longer principal] under the rug,” Yakko says. “It’s more than likely because they don’t want these implications scuffing up the reputation of the school. But whatever school that picks up Mr. Samuel, they more than likely didn’t know about what happened at our school. And he’s probably going to get transferred.” 

A Culture of Racial Discrimination at Cochran 

Yakko, who began attending Johnnie Cochran Middle School in 2020, says tension between them and Samuel was immediate. 

“So, I guess from the moment I got there I got the vibe that he was hard to deal with,” they say, “and I guess from like the moment I got there he didn’t like me. Anytime I got in trouble, he would like start belittling me and making me feel like I was not as human.”

One particular incident stood out in their mind. 

“I’m Black, so I usually take offense when people — when friends of mine — who aren’t Black use the n-word,” they say. “One of my ex-friends had used the n-word, and I got on him for that, and Mr. Samuel had walked up to us and told me I was acting like the police. The other student got away with it, which isn’t right.” 

According to Yakko, Samuel repeated this same sentiment — that students were “acting like police” — frequently when Yakko’s peers complained about students making derogatory comments. 

“And so like racist, homophobic, transphobic racist stuff had been said all throughout the year and nothing was done about it even though Mr. Samuel heard about it all the time,” they say.

Yakko faced other problems during their first two years at Johnnie Cochran. This past school year, they had a physical altercation with another student. 

“One student slapped me so hard it felt like he could have knocked one of my teeth out,” they say. “He had said something and I felt like if he wanted to he’d have people jump me at some point, and I just didn’t want to deal with that.”

Yakko was able to switch homerooms, but little disciplinary action was taken against the student. According to Yakko, student complaints often went ignored at Cochran. 

“Any time another student had said something about it, they were punished instead of the people who had said these bad things,” they say. 

Matching with previous allegations from students, Yakko felt race played a major role in how disciplinary action was handled at Johnnie Cochran: “He did not like Black kids. The closer to white you got, the more he favored you. I know that. I’m not the only Black kid who’s gotten into trouble for doing the right thing.”

Samuel targeted Yakko frequently during his time at Cochran. They once got yelled at by Sameul when someone else’s basketball rolled under their desk during class, prompting the substitute to call the principal. Another time, Samuel accosted their in the hallway while they were enroute to another teacher’s room. 

“Everyone knows this teacher. Mr. Portillo,” they say. “He lets you stay in his room during lunch and stuff. I was going up there to finish a test. [Samuel] had told me I couldn’t go up the stairs, even though I explained to him I was going to Mr. Portillo’s room. And he got all mad at me because I was quote-unquote talking back. But I was having a conversation with him. That’s how that works. He threatened to call my parents and stuff. So I was like whatever, I’ll take the other set of stairs.”

Leonidas Portillo did not respond to Knock LA’s request for comment. 

Fighting on School Grounds 

Yakko claims physical altercations between students were common at Johnnie Cochran. According to Yakko, Samuel did occasionally discipline students for fighting in the form of a weeklong suspension, but he often let altercations go unpunished. In one notable incident, Yakko witnessed Samuel pushing a fight off school grounds. 

“[Samuel] knew about a certain fight, right?” Yakko says. “In that situation, he’s supposed to call the parents, that’s something you do. He knew the fight was gonna happen and he let the two trash talk each other until it was, ‘Meet me at the Dunkin’ Donuts down the street.’ …So they went to the parking lot there to fight. It got broken up by a Dunkin’ Donuts worker.”

Yakko is unsure whether anyone at Johnnie Cochran addressed this particular incident. Knock LA reached out to other teachers who may have witnessed the event, but they did not respond for comment.  

“[Samuel] wanted them to fight off school property so he didn’t have to get involved,” they say. “Because if you fight on school property, you get suspended.”

After the series was published, Knock LA was informed that Samuel, as well as plant manager Kenneth Clark, had possibly been reassigned from their positions at Cochran. Samuel has been replaced by a new principal, Soraya Drew.

“We are at a crossroads,” reads a message from Drew posted to the Cochran website. “I am also a parent and know how important it is to have your support because you are your child’s number one teacher and advocate.”

The policies surrounding the employment status of Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) employees who are under investigation are unclear. In the past, reporting has found “rubber rooms,” a reference to padded cells of psychiatric hospitals, where those employees sit and wait for their investigations to pan out rather than going to their normal posts. 

The current policy states that LAUSD employees who are under investigations involving “significant safety risks” to students and staff, or a general disruption to the school environment, are either reassigned to another school or to their own homes. The administrator who spoke out in part two of the Knock LA series has also received a reassignment, which she is fighting. 

While several stories have been published about the existence of the rubber rooms, there is still little known about their existence. 

Knock LA previously had issues getting a response from LAUSD officials. To corroborate Yakko’s claims, Knock LA reached out to multiple teachers and school officials and received no response. Some teachers declined to speak out in fear of retaliation. 

LAUSD did not fulfill a California Public Records Act Request regarding the current employment of Samuel — or of Kenneth Clark, a plant manager who was accused of assaulting a school administrator — filed by Knock LA before the 10-day deadline during which they are required to respond under California law. 

LAUSD also repeatedly declined to comment on the employment statuses of anyone in the series or elaborate on the process for suspended employees.