GUEST COMMENTARY - Multiple teachers working under Johnnie L. Cochran Jr. Middle School principal Gilberto Samuel report being subjected to or observing sexual harassment, homophobic discrimination, and retaliation.
Others say Samuel protects those loyal to him, endangering children in the process. Students report Samuel overseeing a campus that fosters a hostile culture and unfairly targets Black and Brown children.
Knock LA attempted for over two months to confirm details of Samuel’s employment, harassment allegations, and prior instances of discipline with the Los Angeles Unified School District. The district has not answered repeated questions, nor complied with a public records request for the information.
Samuel appears to have begun working for LAUSD before the early 1990s. By 1993, he worked as a traveling supervisors-playground (TSPs) for the district’s Better Educated Students for Tomorrow (LA’s BEST) — an after school enrichment program for district campuses. In 1997, Samuel was the TSP for Hillcrest Drive Elementary School in Baldwin Village. While working as a TSP, a judge found he had provided inconsistent performance evaluations for the site coordinator who was later inappropriately terminated from the position. The coordinator later filed a claim, saying she was terminated because the principal did not like her. In his paper scoring, he ranked the coordinator as performing up to standard, which he later rescinded. Samuel testified that he had conferred on the decision for termination with the school’s principal, who later resigned.
In 2013, Samuel became the principal of Johnnie L. Cochran Jr. Middle School. The school is located in the Arlington Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles, which is made up of low-income renters. More than 15 percent of residents are below the poverty line. Cochran’s student body is mostly children of color, and 89% of them come from low-income families, according to the California Department of Education. Students are jammed into classrooms of about 30 each, and regularly score in the lowest percentiles for state math and English assessments, according to the California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress.
The school’s teachers say they felt support from the administration when it came time to deal with difficulties like meeting grade level standards or discipline, but everything changed when Samuel became principal.
“It was so bad I thought, ‘I don’t know if I want to be a teacher,’” one teacher told Knock LA. Test scores remained stagnant; the teacher says some colleagues were content to have children copy things from the board instead of lessons “because it was easy.” They described feeling left to solve problems completely alone. “The job [felt] impossible…I couldn’t go to work, I had to take a day off every week.”
Many teachers say Samuel regularly belittles them. Three who identify as queer allege that Samuel targeted them. One teacher told Knock LA Samuel noticed a photo a colleague had on their desk of their partner of the same gender identity. Samuel allegedly told the teacher it was “completely inappropriate to talk about sex in front of the kids,” and demanded they remove the photo. Another teacher mentioned their partner of the same gender identity in class, and was reprimanded by Samuel who told them it was “inappropriate.” Many queer staff report hiding their identity at school for fear of retribution by Samuel; many of them left the school.
Additionally, Samuel allegedly shows preferential treatment to younger women, and has also been accused of sexually harassing them. One teacher says he observed Samuel hugging and kissing younger women employed at the school, as well as conversing openly about attraction and sexual intercourse. “It made me so uncomfortable,” the teacher said.
Some of these interactions were reported to the teacher’s union, but no action was taken. Other actions were not reported, for fear of retaliation. United Teachers Los Angeles did not respond to requests for comment.
Samuel’s supporters would allegedly gaslight anyone who complained, and they were reportedly rewarded for their actions. One office worker alleges two men were given protection following malfeasance. Kenneth Clark, a plant manager for the school and favorite of Samuel, harassed a receptionist for several months, culminating in locking the receptionist in a room with him and refusing to let them out. When the receptionist reported the incident to Samuel, he brushed it off.
Tomas Armijo, a senior administrative official at the school, appeared on campus several times in the past under the influence, according to people who observed him. When the behavior was reported to Samuel, he allegedly took no action. Armjio was arrested for driving under the influence three times between 2020 and February of this year. He is currently incarcerated and facing charges. Samuel denied knowing about Armijo’s criminal history, telling Knock LA, “The only thing that I do is run the school …That’s not my job.”
The Los Angeles Unified School District said in a February 2022 statement to Knock LA that “Los Angeles Unified is an equal opportunity employer. The District complies with all laws governing the employment of applicants. All California school districts are prohibited by statute from employing applicants with certain convictions.” When asked to specify which convictions, a spokesperson said they had nothing further to add.
Samuel’s years of power have created a hostile environment for both students and teachers. This article is the first in a series detailing what goes on inside of Johnnie L. Cochran Jr. Middle School.
(This article was written by Cerise Castle - featured at KNOCKLA is the first part in a series on Johnnie L. Cochran Jr. Middle School. Emily Holshouser and Erin Wisti also contributed to this report. Cerise Castle wrote the first history of deputy gangs inside the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. She's produced and hosted segments for the Emmy-award winning nightly news program, VICE News Tonight, and NPR as well as series for the podcasting giant, Wondery. Her reporting and commentary have been featured in publications like The Daily Beast, The Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Magazine, and MTV.)