Charlotte Bell has never run for school board or been employed by Inglewood schools, yet this ex-gang member is a power to be reckoned with in the 18,000-student district.
Bell is a perennial gadfly who says she fights for the "little people." Her supporters say she is a deeply religious activist who aims to expose incompetence and corruption.
But her many detractors describe her as a politically connected muckraker with a reputation for threatening and harassing people.
Her name regularly pops up in lawsuits involving the school district. She has been sued for allegedly conspiring with board members to demote employees and for allegedly smearing people's reputations by spreading rumors about misconduct. She has been blamed in a lawsuit for allegedly causing one employee's stress-related death.
"People are scared to cross this lady," said Arnold Butler, a former Inglewood principal who is suing Bell.
Nearly every local government agency and school board has its gadflies -- community members who religiously attend public meetings, hoard documents and vigilantly question elected officials.
But Bell, 48, an unemployed cancer survivor who admits that she used to sell drugs, is unusual in being at the center of so much litigation.
Bell said: "I'm gonna always speak up. And I'm not going to stop until God takes me out."
She is really the one being harassed by people who are trying to silence her, Bell said. She said her car brakes have been cut and her tires slashed.
But the ultimate threat to shut her up, she said, was the one that now propels her.
Bell said she believes her son was framed a decade ago by people within the school system because she was criticizing the district. School officials say they had nothing to do with her son's conviction for several sexual assaults on young girls.
Her son, a 17-year-old Inglewood High School student at the time, is now serving a 32-year prison sentence. Bell said she paid her son's legal bills by selling drugs, which in 1993 landed her in prison for more than a year.
"When they took my son, they took my life," she said bitterly. "And now, my life has become the Inglewood school district."
Bell was sitting on a bench on an October morning at Los Angeles County Superior Court, eating dried pumpkin seeds and waiting for the preliminary hearing of Cresia Green-Davis, a school board member accused of welfare fraud and lying on her resume. Green-Davis is Bell's ally and friend. The case is headed for trial.
After the hearing, Green-Davis' attorney told a reporter that his client was no "welfare queen," but instead a low-income mother, who may have bent the rules but was only struggling to raise her two sons.
It is an excuse that touched a nerve for Bell.
"She didn't have no food for her kids," Bell said in defense of Green-Davis. "Sometimes she didn't even eat."
"If you were a mother," she said, "you would understand."
Bell was an orphan, born to a Korean mother and an African American father. Her non-biological parents adopted her as a toddler in Korea, Bell said, because she looked like the most helpless child.
But Bell's adoptive parents died of natural causes shortly after they brought her to the United States, she said. She ended up bouncing between foster homes, eventually living with a sister of her adoptive mother in South Los Angeles.
But she was troubled and always felt out of place, she said. She served time in juvenile hall, where she was introduced to gangs, she said.
At age 21, she gave birth to Charlovohn Bell. She has hardly spoken to the father since.
Bell said she met Green-Davis about 20 years ago on Queen Street in Inglewood, where they both lived. Green-Davis was the struggling mother of twin boys. Bell was "gangbanging."
"Ms. Davis befriended my son," Bell said. "She would fix him lunch."
Green-Davis, elected to the school board in 2001, could not be reached for comment for this article.
The two women have been registered to vote at the same address on West Queen Street, according to records. Bell said she never lived there, and they never lived together. She said she used the address because she didn't want people to know her real one.
Bell made her entrance into activism after her son was upset by the transfer of some black friends out of his elementary school class into special education. Bell said she suspected discrimination and began the scrutiny that led her to become a regular critic of the district.
In public discussion and in interviews, Bell has said her doggedness alarmed political leaders so much that they railroaded her son. Although she cannot pinpoint how, she said she believes that a former superintendent, George McKenna, Inglewood Mayor Roosevelt Dorn -- who was a judge at the time -- and certain faculty members in the district, set him up.
Both McKenna and Dorn have repeatedly denied such accusations.
"I had nothing to do with it," said McKenna, who served as superintendent from 1988 to 1994.
Dorn, who did not handle the case of Bell's son, said he had never heard of him. Dorn added that he repeatedly complains to the district about Bell's presence in schools because someone with a drug conviction is "not supposed to be on the campus."
In 1994, at age 17, Charlovohn was sent to prison for incidents in which he forced two girls, ages 12 and 13, to perform oral sex on him. In the same case, he was convicted of an attempted assault on an 11-year-old girl who ran away after he pulled her into an alley and tried to unzip her pants, according to court records.
Charlovohn's attorney, Verah Bradford, said in a recent interview that the lengthy sentence was "terribly unfortunate." She said that he initially had pleaded guilty, and would have served time in juvenile hall and received counseling. But Charlovohn later withdrew that plea, against his lawyer's advice, and the court tried him as an adult.
Bradford declined to comment on whether or not she thought Bell's allegations of railroading were valid.
But Susan Powers, the deputy district attorney who prosecuted the case, said Bell had been making such claims for years without any credible evidence. Powers said she remembers Bell as seeming to have "a strange hold" over the school district and witnesses as being afraid of her.
Powers said she remains "overwhelmingly convinced" of Charlovohn's guilt. "For her to blame everybody else is very disturbing."
Seeing her son taken to prison, Bell said in an interview, "was the hardest part of my life." She speaks to him regularly by phone.
Her mood quickly turned from serious to soft, as she recalled a recent conversation. He is now studying to be a minister in prison, she said.
She pulled out a recent photo of him, hair cropped tightly around his face, standing with a white teddy bear. "My son is the only person I've ever loved," she said through tears, reaching for napkins.
Bell is intelligent, but not sophisticated; outspoken, but not articulate. She is short and stocky, with a chiseled face and a lazy left eye. She walks with a limp as a result of her cancer surgery. She wears her long black hair in two thick, shiny braids. She is so sensitive about her looks that she refused to pose for a photograph for this story.
She is five years cancer-free, but it "ate my uterus up," she said in her raspy voice. "The little people here call me 'the miracle.' "
Prison, cancer and her son's fate, Bell said, "only made me fight more."
Joann Johnson, former president of the Inglewood-South Bay NAACP, said people wrongly try to discredit Bell, whom she sees as a force for good.
"It's hilarious as to how many people go after this one lady," said Johnson, who added "I thank God" for Bell's commitment to education.
"Just because Ms. Bell is not educated as we are, don't underestimate her," Johnson said, or doubt that "she will bring forth the truth."
"As long as you are doing what is right for the children, you will never have a problem with Ms. Bell," Johnson added.
Bell said she pushed district officials to look into a 1996 scandal involving a custodian supervisor who wrote checks to 51 phantom janitors, including a dead man and a prison inmate.
With tips from custodians, she approached Richard Bertain, a county-appointed fiscal advisor to the district.
Bertain is now dead, but Paul Harvey, a retired fraud investigator who worked on the phantom janitor case, said "she wasn't the one who broke it."
Charlotte Bell often called with information the investigators already knew, Harvey said. The only time her information was both ground-breaking and legitimate, Harvey said, was when she called him with corruption tips about an adult education program. After others complained as well, Harvey said, he went over to investigate.
It turned out the principal had stolen $27,000 from the district in 1994. He was sentenced to three years in prison.
Bell also won herself more enemies.
In June, nine Inglewood Unified employees were reassigned from their jobs as principals, directors and assistant superintendents, to classroom teaching positions. Board members said those individuals had been demoted to reduce the district's top-heavy administration.
But in a lawsuit, the employees say they were the victims of a conspiracy by Bell, board members Green-Davis, Eveline Ross and Willie Crittendon, and newly appointed Assistant Supt. Kenneth Crowe. Bell and the other defendants all deny these accusations.
All of the nine complainants say Bell threatened or harassed them separately, making comments such as, "We're going to clean out of the whole nest."Bell scoffs at the lawsuit, which awaits a court hearting.
"I feel privileged that I'm being sued along with high-class people," she said, referring to district officials. She added: "Why you want to sue somebody that ain't got nothing?"
Among its claims, the lawsuit alleges that Bell and others harassed a former assistant superintendent of instruction, Norma Reed, last year until Reed was demoted to a teaching position.
One month after Reed, 53, was demoted, she died from hypertension, the lawsuit said. The defendants' conduct, it says, "caused Ms. Reed to suffer severe emotional stress" which induced her death.
Four years ago, Bell was sued by a former president of the Inglewood Teachers Assn., Jimmy Ellis and his wife, Gina, also a former district employee. The lawsuit claimed the couple suffered emotional injury and damage to their reputations, based on defamatory statements made by Bell about their professional qualifications and ethics.
The suit was dismissed after Bell said she had never been served with a legally required summons and complaint.
Ellis, who now works for the California Teachers Assn. in Bakersfield, said he did not continue to push the lawsuit because Bell "ducked and hid, and after a year and a half of this litigation
In 1996, Alesia Mayfield, a former teacher at Inglewood High, filed a restraining order request against Bell, which was denied.
"The defendant is at my job daily although she is not employed there and does not have any children that attend Inglewood High School," Mayfield wrote. "I am afraid for my life and general safety."
However, Renee Crook, a former Inglewood Unified parent, said she hoped the lawsuits don't slow down what she sees as Bell's efforts to improve Inglewood schools.
"When you stand for right it's a hard stand, and you often stand alone," Crook said. "But I applaud her for everything she does."
"For years, I've thought, 'What is Bell's motivation for being here?' " she said. Crook said she has concluded that Bell "just hates to see the injustice and the things that go on that make it so the kids don't get what they need."