To hear Steven Jovanelly recount the events leading to his dismissal in February from , it all began in the school’s weight room in October 2011, about a month after the faculty voted out a students’ dean who then became a PE teacher.
A voluntary football and basketball coach who was also a substitute teacher, Jovanelly was talking to the junior varsity football team after a weight-training session when, he recalls, the dean turned PE teacher, Roman Cisneros, walked into the weight room and interrupted the meeting.
“He told me that we need to clean up,” says Jovanelly, referring to Cisneros. “He was in my face, challenging me in front of my kids and I basically told him ‘we’re not janitors—we’re football players.’”
Jovanelly says that his next run-in with Cisneros occurred one day in February. It was around 3 p.m., school had ended, and Jovanelly was alone in the weight room doing a stomach exercise while waiting for the basketball team. He was in the “plank position”—down on the floor, like a plank of wood, his entire weight resting on the underside of his forearms and toes—when Cisneros came in.
In an account verified by Principal Salvador Velasco at an LAUSD-moderated forum at the school this past Wednesday and recorded on a Patch video that can be viewed here, Cisneros “very diligently went about cleaning” the weight room, which was assigned to him by the PE department, much as a classroom is assigned to teachers, as Velasco put it.
So diligently, in fact, that, as Jovanelly tells it, Cisneros “purposely jabbed my ribs with a mop stick.” Jovanelly says that he got up and told the PE teacher: “Don’t touch me—how pathetic that you’re spending your life becoming a janitor.”
Jovanelly says he reported the matter to Los Angeles School Police Officer Glenn Cunday, who talked him out of filing a formal complaint. (Jovanelly's mother, Ronda, said at Wednesday's LAUSD-moderated event that Cisnero's jab to her son's ribs resulted in a bruise that left a clear mark on his body.)
Toward the end of basketball season in February, Jovanelly says he had one last encounter with Cisneros that convinced him the PE teacher would go to great lengths to prevent him from using the weight room.
To cut a long story short, as Jovanelly tells it, Cisneros took away a barbell and a few weights that Jovanelly was using—and, in the presence of seventh-grade students, refused the coach’s request for a single dumbbell. (Last week, Patch requested an interview with Cisneros through Principal Velasco but was told that the PE teacher does not wish to speak about any of the issues connected with his conflict with Jovanelly.)
Letter of Suspension
The following day, says Jovanelly, Velasco told him that he was being suspended for a semester and that he was to stay away from school until the end of June. Jovanelly, who had gone to Velasco’s office to get permission for holding basketball practice on a Saturday, was taken aback. “Velasco told me, ‘Let’s not talk about that—you need to go talk to [Assistant Principal Koh] Ikeda about something.’” Adds Jovanelly: “That’s when I got the letter.”
Patch reported about this letter on Sunday—it constitutes what appears to be Jovanelly’s formal dismissal from the school. Dated Feb. 10 and signed by Ikeda, the letter states no reason for the junior varsity coach’s dismissal—just a warning to refrain from being on campus “before, during or after school to speak to students, coaches, and staff” without “prior approval from me or the principal.”
Jovanelly stayed away from school for nearly three months—11 weeks and four days, to be precise. And when he did return—on the morning of May 2—he acknowledges that it was without permission from Ikeda or Velasco.
'I Went to Say Goodbye'
“I went back basically to say goodbye,” says Jovanelly. “It was a chance to let the parents know that what happened to me is unfair and that we’re going to try to fix it.”
That morning, admits Jovanelly, he distributed copies of a letter to his football team. Addressed to parents and students, the letter starts out by saying that junior varsity “Zero Period” training was regrettably being suspended because the coaching staff would not be returning to school next season.
“We have done nothing wrong whatsoever, yet Mr. Velasco refuses to let us come back to continue teaching our student-athletes,” the letter goes on, turning abruptly accusatory: “This man is a liar, has abused his power repeatedly, and does not act in the best interest of our school, community or students.”
According to Velasco, students began posting copies of Jovanelly’s letter on the walls of the school that morning of May 2. Staff members took down and returned to the main office at least 10 copies of Jovanelly’s letter before Velasco instructed them to start throwing the letters away, the principal told Patch, implying thereby that altogether more than 10 copies were posted.
Jovanelly was handcuffed, briefly detained and cited for trespassing by Officer Cunday that morning, although the coach had left the school campus by then. In fact, the immediate reason why Cunday was summoned, according to Jovanelly, was because Cisneros and he were having a heated argument. The PE teacher was near the boys' gym, separated from Jovanelly by a chain-link fence on the school's perimeter.
(Velasco alleges that Jovanelly didn’t just distribute copies of his letter among football players but that copies were also given to students who are not on the football team. Jovanelly denies that’s true, saying that he made exactly 60 copies “because we have 60 kids in our zero period coaching workout.” Further, although toward the end of his letter Jovanelly implores students that “whatever you do, do not use this as an excuse to act out,” the letter appears to have created what Velasco describes as a “hostile environment”—scores of students walked out of class last week to protest Jovanelly’s dismissal.)
Why did Jovanelly want to bid farewell to the football team when Velasco had promised him that he could return as coach after June (following the scheduled retirement in July of PE teacher Cisneros)? After all, as the coach himself says: “It was a well-known thing that I would be allowed to come back. The stipulation was that I would stay away and not cause any trouble.”
Anonymous Letter to LAUSD
The answer, as Jovanelly plainly puts it, is that “I had my suspicions that me coming back in June was a lie.” And the key to his doubts can be found in a controversy surrounding another letter—an anonymous one—evidently written by an ERHS parent to the LAUSD.
According to Velasco, the letter not only contains several libelous accusations about him but that it also has “too many details that are only known by him [Jovanelly].” The principal says that he told Jovanelly’s younger brother, Joshua, who is also a coach at the school, that “I need to have the letter retracted so that we can address the concerns [in the letter]." Besides, says Velasco, "I have the right to face my accuser.”
Velasco, says Jovanelly, “thought that either I wrote the letter or I was inciting parents to protest.” The coach adds that he tried “multiple times” to contact Velasco, “basically to say, ‘I don’t have anything to do with this letter.'” But his messages to Velasco went unanswered, says Jovanelly. (“Absolutely false,” counters Velasco: “He never called my office. The only communication I had with him in the last three months is through his brother Joshua.”)
In the weeks leading to his “goodbye” visit on campus, says Jovanelly, several coaches told him that Velasco was furious about the letter. “Do what you can to retract the letter,” Jovanelly quotes one of the coaches as telling him on April 18 after a coaches’ meeting. “Appease him.”
'Protesting Gets You Nowhere'
Jovanelly refused. “I said, ‘No—I don’t know who wrote it, and it’s unethical of me to say anything because it’s their [the writer’s] free speech,’” Jovanelly tells Patch, adding: Whoever wrote the letter “went over Velasco’s head because protesting to that school gets you nowhere.”
For his part, Jovanelly admits that he clearly crossed the line on May 2 by visiting campus when he had been instructed not to. But he had his reasons, he says, because he never believed he’d be allowed back after June and that Velasco’s promise to the contrary was not in good faith.
“Once I realized this was just a game, I said to myself that I’m going to step away and use all my weight, feeble as it may be, to get this man out of here,” says Jovanelly. “I decided to jump in and throw my weight against the ugly system.”