The LA school wins the battle with the motel next door, which is a crime magnet
The September 2021 shooting at the Crime Magnet motel flanked by two schools has highlighted the urgent mission of the campus community.
A police officer had shot and wounded a motel resident, and the investigation forced a last-minute, day-long closure of the KIPP Academy of Opportunity, a middle school. Staff worked to notify parents and create a waiting area for students who were already arriving on foot and by car.
“I received a call early this morning that there was a police shooting at the motel,” said Principal John Coleman III. “I can’t open my school. I can’t even get near my school.”
Some parents couldn’t take it anymore—the wailing sirens, the hovering police helicopters, the rampant prostitution, the drug dealing on campus. The shooting prompted a spike in resignations from the respected KIPP organization, which deals with waitlists rather than exits.
The 490-capacity middle school had shrunk to 369 students, threatening its future. Somehow the motel either needed to be cleaned up – or it had to go.
The best, worst place for a school
So many aspects of this stretch of Figueroa Street north of Manchester Avenue seem inappropriate for a school. It borders the 110 Freeway – a side road that winds around the campus. Traffic is heavy throughout the day on Figueroa, a major thoroughfare. There is not enough parking space for staff, no space for a grassy playground or sports fields. And right in the middle was the Palms Motel.
But around the 8400 block, working-class families live, raise children, and work for a better life — the kind of urban environment in which KIPP SoCal has located 19 campuses that are part of a national network of 242 schools.
The KIPP Empower Academy, the elementary school, opened on the premises in 2014, just north of the motel on property that formerly housed a towing company. The middle school moved south of the motel in 2017 where a church had previously stood. KIPP’s colorful cube-like structures rose on each side of the motel. KIPP wanted to buy the motel property, but the owners weren’t interested.
Critics have called the Palms Motel, located between two KIPP charter schools on Figueroa Street in Los Angeles, a “crime magnet” that puts students and staff at risk.
The problems started immediately. In 2017, a passer-by was injured by gunfire after school when bullets hit the main gate of the pedestrian school, leaving shell casings strewn on the floor.
Problems have worsened in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, said LAPD Senior Lead Officer Ruben Cardenas. “We had problems with prostitution, gangs, drug activity almost every day – inside and outside the motel. … And we have these kids going to and from school.”
Two women walk past the Palms Motel, where LA Police responded to calls related to prostitution, gangs and drug activity. The motel owner said the charter school wrongly blamed the Palms for pervasive crime that the police couldn’t seem to control.
The scenes impressed fourth grader Giahnii Brooks.
“I used to see the girls and they would be half-naked and get in people’s cars and stuff,” said Giahnii, 9. “My grandma told me it was girls who sold their bodies for money — because they didn’t have any other way.” .”
And with the police calls came lockdowns — sometimes two or three a week.
Jaxon Sanders, left, and Giahnii Brooks, fourth graders at KIPP Empower Academy, recall frequent lockdowns and prostitutes linked to the motel next door.
(Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times)
In a lockdown, Giahnii said, “teachers turn off the lights. They will put paper on the window that is on the door like any kind and then they have to tell us to be quiet. So nobody tries to come in and thinks people are here.”
The Palms Motel’s owner, Maoson Young, said the school wrongly blamed the motel for rampant crime, which police seem unable to control. He’s owned the two-story, 21-unit motel for about 10 years — and it’s been in operation for at least 40 years.
“Everyone wants to blame the hotel owner,” said Young, who has managed Los Angeles hotels since the 1970s. “The problem is crime in the community.”
Young said his employees and managers would call the police if there were any signs of trouble, but it often took hours for officers to arrive. By that time, the person wielding a gun was gone. And officers advised him they could not harass an inmate over multiple visitors — where was the evidence of prostitution? Young said he hired 24-hour security.
After the 2021 shooting, parents and school leaders signed petitions, rallied local support from other groups, liaised with political leaders, demonstrated at City Hall and alerted the media.
“Over several months, we met with a team consisting of two assistant city attorneys, an assistant detective and a senior officer to report any security incidents originating from the motel,” said Joanna Belcher, KIPP SoCal’s chief external impact officer.
And as of early 2022, the reports kept pouring in: a person at the motel recording videos of students; an argument that ended with a driver backing his car into a pedestrian and pinning him against a pole; a man who openly uses drugs and exposes himself to women who then argue with three others; a sachet containing “a large quantity of a white substance” in a planter; a wine bottle that was thrown off the motel property and shattered next to a number of children.
Parents brought their concerns to the city government.
“I am a mother to a 6 year old attending KIPP Empower Academy,” wrote Diana Ramos. “My child started crying when I picked him up from school today because he was so scared during lockdown and wanted to go home but couldn’t. It’s about time the neighborhood changed.”
“I’m signing this petition because as a current student,” Arianna Rodriguez wrote, “I shouldn’t see people running/walking to the motel naked.”
KIPP and Motelmanagement entered into mediation almost a year ago. Young said he tried in good faith. Police confirmed the motel had put up more exterior lighting and signs advising that parking was for residents only and that other vehicles would be impounded.
Neither the promised camera system nor a higher perimeter fence were installed, Officer Cardenas said. This was necessary because motel residents threw objects from the second floor into the playground: bottles, syringes, condoms. The school erected a 20 foot high chain link fence with green screen as a barrier.
KIPP Empower Academy director Chinedu Udeh speaks to kindergarten children in December in the school’s vegetable garden, which is below a 20-foot barrier the school erected to keep out objects thrown from the neighboring motel.
(Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times)
The dance teacher La Tasha Poster-Holbert, who left KIPP in June after six years, was going too slowly.
“In my time I’ve met some amazing people and formed some profound relationships,” she said in a suicide note, which she was allowed to share with the school. But “the area had a stench. … It was very oppressive and I had to pray and listen to positive messages daily just to teach.”
Councilman Marqueece Harris-Dawson, who represents the area, said he remembered the motel from the 1990s, before running for office, as the leader of a community group that put the property on its list of “crime magnets” — “real estate where if you drew a circle around it you could associate the violent crime calls with that place.”
He promised to help with an anti-harassment process that could eventually lead to a forced sale.
A deal is made
KIPP officials were frustrated by a lengthy bureaucratic endeavor with no guarantee of success.
But the pressure was on the motel owners. Young said he felt the city was against him. He and his partner are ready to negotiate.
Could KIPP afford to buy the motel? KIPP SoCal revenue for 2020-21 was $140 million, but those funds were for educational services and existing liabilities.
But how could they afford not to?
The parties met somewhere in the middle and settled on a purchase price of $4.7 million. According to KIPP, the money came from reserves that receive philanthropic support in addition to funding public schools.
Escrow was closed on September 9th. Demolition of the Palms Motel began on October 28.
Demolition of the Palms Motel on Figueroa Street in Los Angeles began in late October. Behind the motel on the left is the KIPP Empower Academy, an elementary school.
(EPI Construction / KIPP SoCal)
A neat, quiet parking lot is where the Palms Motel once stood.
Young has moved on; He owns other hotels and is active in a local motel association. But he warned that prostitution and other crime would not go away with the motel.
On a weekday morning, sex workers were pacing up and down blocks of campus.
KIPP Empower Academy Director Chinedu Udeh stands at the entrance of a gated lot where the Palms Motel once stood.
(Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times)
Officer Cardenas called the outcome a career highlight: “When we started this process, I was a little skeptical about the question: can it be done? I’m glad I was wrong because they did it: the community, the parents, the teachers – they all got together and made it possible.”
Principal Coleman said the new parking lot is badly needed, but why stop there? Why not raise more money, dream bigger.
“I’m definitely thinking of an underground car park and then a gym, dance studio, recording studio and offices on the second floor and a grass field on the third floor – so we can get dedicated people into our school, even those who don’t necessarily have children here. We need to invest in the community.”