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Three weeks ago Otis Cobb asked the kind of question a journalist should ask: "Is there any money left?"
The 11th-grader, a staffer on the Mission High School West Wing student newspaper, just wanted an answer. He didn't expect to receive Principal Ted Alfaro's threats of suspension and libel prosecution. He didn't expect the school administration to transfer fellow student journalist Joey Guerrero to another school. And he certainly didn't plan on student teacher Jennifer Moffitt ending up on a blacklist.
It all started back in December, when -- according to Mission Athletic Director Carroll Covey -- Alfaro spent $1,400 from the school athletic budget on 10 pairs of Air Jordans ($135 retail) for the varsity basketball team. (Alfaro says the figure was closer to $1,000.) A few weeks later, Vice Principal Carlos Ramirez spent $995 from the same sports budget to buy nine pairs of Penny Hardaways ($140 retail) for the junior varsity team. Unlike Alfaro, however, Ramirez made the players sign a contract promising they'd either sell pizzas and sodas to pay for the shoes, or pay for them out of their own pockets.
In the absence of student reimbursement, that's a lot of cash for an annual Mission sports budget that totals all of $11,000. It is, of course, at any principal's discretion to spend that kind of money -- though it's unusual to see such intervention. But for Alfaro's part, he says the basketball players made a special appeal this year and, having seen that the baseball team spent some $2,000 on uniforms last year, he felt that it was a fair request.
But the athletic director raised another issue. Covey, a 33-year veteran at Mission, informed the principal by note that according to the Middle and High School Principals' Agreement of Students' Athletics, no moneys can be used for personal equipment. (Unlike baseball jerseys, basketball shoes can only be worn by one student for one season.) Alfaro insists that he made it clear that the students would have to chip in and that he would hustle together the rest of the money with "community support." It's a pledge Alfaro says he will still fulfill, even though the bill has yet to be paid.
More troubling than the spending decision itself, however, are the allegations of what happened next.
In January, Rashelle Brooks, a staffer at the West Wing newspaper (who has since moved across the bay to Pittsburg), obtained a copy of the JV contract and wrote a story about the shoes for the paper. Classmate Cobb saw the contract while Brooks was working on the story. "[W]hen I saw the total sum for team gear, my jaw dropped," Cobb, 17, wrote in a memo.
Adding activism to journalism, Cobb typed up the contract, with the players' names, into copy for a flier that asked students to contact him, Brooks, or another newspaper student, Joey Guerrero, if they were curious. He punctuated the flier with two questions: "What about the other sports teams?" and "Is there any money left?" Next, S.F. State student teacher Jennifer Moffitt, who's worked at Mission for a year, allowed Cobb to use a photocopier to create 50 pale-green fliers.
While posting, though, Cobb and Brooks bumped into JV coach Emmitt Neal. Cobb says that when the coach saw their fliers he became "highly upset and angrily claimed that we didn't know what we were doing and had no right."
Coach Neal affirms his anger, but says he only told the students they should ask informed sources before they printed "hearsay."
Soon after the run-in with the coach, Principal Alfaro summoned the students to his office. Cobb says it wasn't the first time Alfaro called student journalists on the carpet.
Since Alfaro took the high post at Mission last fall -- following the beloved Lupe Arabalos, who had been ousted by Superintendent Waldemar Rojas -- the relationship between administration and the West Wing has been tense. Award-winning journalism teacher Katharine Swan says even before the first issue of the year debuted, the principal asked to see proofs of the newspaper before press time, a request she refused. After the first issue, which contained a few stories moderately critical of the school's administration and its new policies, the principal met with the newspaper students in an odd no-teachers-allowed conference and asked the students to print more positive news.
Alfaro concedes he threatened suspension if the students repeated the action. But the principal denies Cobb's claim that he suggested the possibility of a libel prosecution by the JV players' parents. "The issue is not what they said, it was the names," says Alfaro. "They used school paper. They used the copier without permission. They were wrong."
Without the benefit of an attorney in the office, Cobb and Brooks worried they had made a mistake and apologized to the coach.
Later in the day, Alfaro called for Moffitt (finishing her final day as a student teacher and scheduled to begin substitute teaching the following week) and Guerrero, the other student journalist who had been unavailable for the earlier meeting. Moffitt, 30, says she and the principal butted heads immediately. He said she was out of line for allowing students to use school resources; she said she had never heard of that policy. Then Alfaro dropped the bomb. "He told me that I was a student teacher, and that as far as he was concerned, I was done at Mission High," says Moffitt.