COURTESY OF PARAMOUNT PICTURES
In the true-life movie about a high school teacher who made a difference in the lives of her students living in a gang-infested neighborhood, a character narrowly escaped death in a gang shooting.
But in real life, the actor who played that character died in the arms of his friends after he was shot in an eerily similar act of gang violence.
Erin Gruwell, the idealistic teacher who inspired the movie, remains involved in the fight against gang violence: She was in the courtroom Friday offering support to the family of the murdered actor when the last of five defendants were sentenced.
“We want to be eternally connected with this family who has endured so much and has been a pillar of strength and courage and epitome of what it means to overcome adversity,” Gruwell said.
Gruwell had bright eyes and high hopes when she walked into her high school English classroom at Long Beach Wilson for the first time in 1994.
Her idealism was tested immediately when she was confronted with students who had been written off by some within the educational system as the “unteachables,” who came from poor, uneducated and racially-divided backgrounds and who lived in neighborhoods where gang violence was a fact of life.
But Gruwell, who grew up in Newport Beach, did not give up on her kids. She managed to challenge those hardcore teenagers to reach their potential, in part by encouraging them to write about their perceptions on such topics as hatred, racial differences and tolerance in personal journals that she provided out of her own pocket.
Her dedication and persistence paid off, as all 150 “Freedom Writers” who entered her classroom as freshmen later graduated from Wilson High and entered college.
That’s the premise of a book “The Freedom Writers Diary,” written by Gruwell; an ABC documentary, and eventually the 2007 true-life movie “Freedom Writers,” which starred two-time Oscar winner Hilary Swank as the inspirational Gruwell. The movie grossed $43 million worldwide.
In one scene, rival gang members fired shots at one of Gruwell’s students — a character named Grant Rice – in a drive-by as he walked out of a convenience store. The shots missed their intended target, but struck and killed another young man.
Armand Jones, the actor who played Rice in the movie, was an 18-year-old Long Beach man who in real life attended Cerritos Junior College, was active in his church, worked as an intern at NBC, and was an aspiring rap artist who went by “Young Prozpect,” according to news accounts.
Rice – the character – survived his gang encounter in “Freedom Writers.”
But Jones – the actor – wasn’t so lucky.
On March 17, 2006, shortly after a celebration at the Boogie nightclub in Anaheim to mark the end of filming of “Freedom Writers,” Jones had his own encounter with gang members.
He walked into the bathroom at a nearby Denny’s Restaurant just as a group of Long Beach gang members were robbing two of his friends of jewelry, cell phones and shoes, according to police reports. Then they robbed Jones too — at the point of a gun — before running into the parking lot.
He was shot once in the upper torso just as he emerged from the restaurant. He stumbled back inside, according to witnesses, where he collapsed and died. Ronnell Spencer, one of Jones’ friends who also had been celebrating at the Boogie, was shot in the head during the confrontation but survived.
Several Long Beach gang members were eventually arrested and charged with the special circumstances first-degree murder for their roles in the robbery and killing of Jones, plus several gang allegations and penalty enhancements.
Gang members Stanley Simons, Charles Michael Reynolds and Yolanda Brown were all tried by juries last year, convicted and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for their roles in the gang-motivated killing.
On Friday, Superior Court Judge Thomas Goethals gave identical sentences to co-defendants Jarrell Kelly, 23, and Nicholas Diogenes Valerio, 25, who were tried and convicted on similar charges last month.
“You are a person who deserves to be removed from society for the rest of your life, and that’s what’s going to happen,” Goethals told Kelly.
When Valerio received an identical sentence, his mother Chevelle Valerio, sobbed and ran out of the courtroom.
Sitting in the courtroom gallery watching was Gruwell, the former teacher who tried to make a difference with her students at Long Beach Wilson.
She went on to become a professor at Cal State Long Beach and is now the director of the Freedom Writers Foundation, a nonprofit organization whose aim is to provide educational resources to teachers so they can challenge and educate at-risk students.
Gruwell has not been a high school teacher for more than a dozen years, but she never stopped teaching young people how to cope with the challenges of today’s world.
She attended Friday’s sentencing to honor Jones’ family.
“As a teacher I am always looking for lessons that I can learn … I felt like their student,” she said. “I was humbled by their story.”
Gruwell met Jones’ mother, Adriane Videau, a hairstylist, for the first time in May when the sentencing hearing was delayed.
She gave Videau a signed copy of the “The Freedom Writers Diary,” after writing a note inside the book while in the courtroom:
“Dear Adriane, in the loving memory of Armand – may his legacy live on, may he be a beacon of hope and may he inspire others to write what needs to be written, tell what needs to be told, sing what needs to be sung! Lest we forget … with much love.”
“There you go sweetheart,” Gruwell said, handing Videau the book.
“Thank you,” replied Jones’ mother.
“She’s changed a lot of kids’ lives,” Videau said.
Every year, Gruwell’s foundation provides college scholarships to about a dozen students from Wilson High.
This year the group offered one to a student not from Wilson: Armand Jones’ sister, Ahlia, 17, a senior at Jordan High.
To contribute and to learn more about the foundation, visit www.freedomwritersfoundation.org.
By LARRY WELBORN and VIK JOLLY / THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER
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