Blindsided by Color

Mission High's prize-winning journalists tangle over ridiculous race quotas

Over the past two years, the student journalists of Mission High School's West Wing newspaper have rattled more than their share of cages (see "Journalistic Principals," Feb. 12). On March 3, the Columbia Scholastic Press Advisers Association recognized their achievements with a special award for fighting "for the right to speak their minds while in pursuit of the truth on behalf of their audiences."

In bestowing the award, the Press Advisers Association, the nation's most prominent student press organization, rewarded the high school journalists for their aggressive coverage of highhanded, hypocritical school administrators. But as soon as West Wing adviser Katharine Swan announced the award, those same school administrators highhandedly and hypocritically set to work trying to make the students conform to the administrators' arbitrary version of ethnic sensitivity.

It started with the Press Advisers Association's invitation to the students to attend a three-day conference in New York City and receive the award in person on March 21. The students were ecstatic until administrators started making absurd -- and wrongheaded -- demands for ethnic balance among the West Wing delegation.

The demands took the students by surprise. They say they are accustomed to school administrators throwing tacks at their tires when they write exposes or make controversial editorial endorsements, but the 16-person staff, as diverse as the Mission District itself, had never been subjected to tests for racial and ethnic correctness by school officials.

The first hint of trouble came when the young journalists began looking for ways to cover the cost of traveling to the Press Advisers Association conference and paying the fee to attend it. The press association, which rates student newspapers and publishes journalism textbooks, said it would waive the West Wing's conference fees and provide one hotel room. Newspaper adviser Swan found a scholarship fund that would cover the cost of five plane tickets. But the students never expected enough money to send the entire staff. So they decided, without consulting with school administrators, to elect four students to act as representatives for the entire group. It so happened that one student was African-American, two had Chinese surnames, and the fourth had a French surname.

Then Vice Principal Carlos Ramirez visited the journalism class' third-floor classroom on March 7. His stated intention was to formally congratulate the students. He also offered them a couple of airplane tickets and some hotel money.

The students reacted with skepticism. The administration's flaky fiscal practices have been a regular source of stories for the West Wing. Where, they wanted to know, had Ramirez found the money? He didn't have a satisfactory answer.

After Ramirez left the room, Joey Guerrero, one of the newspaper's staffers, implored the other students to reject the administration's money. "It would be like we owed them a favor," Guerrero said. "It could compromise our story-writing." Guerrero has experienced administration intimidation firsthand. School officials threatened him with suspension after he helped some other newspaper students criticize administrators for using athletic funds to buy pricey Nikes for the basketball team in apparent violation of school policies.

Guerrero's point was an easy sell. Students had already seen the conflict of interest that such subsidies can create last November. Then, administrators used school funds to pay for two students to accompany adviser Swan to an awards ceremony and journalism conference in Anaheim, Calif. The administrators proceeded to botch the arrangements, so that the students and Swan had to travel on different planes that left from separate airports. However, because the staffers had taken money from school officials, they were reluctant to skewer the administrators in print. Tina Yun, who had traveled to Anaheim, argued that she didn't want a repeat in New York. The rest of the staff agreed and politely declined the administration's money.

Soon after, Ramirez asked to see a list of students attending the New York conference. Swan supplied him with the roster. That's when things got strange. Ramirez said the trip couldn't happen unless a Latino was included in the delegation. Furthermore, if the West Wing didn't pick a staff member who was Latino, Ramirez would supply them with a non-staff Latino student just for appearances' sake.

"Whenever there is a group that is representing Mission High, the School Board and [the administration] would like that the group to reflect the school's population," says Ramirez. (Mission High is nearly 50 percent Latino.) "It's one of their policies, and I don't remember which one, there are so many resolutions," he says. But according to the School Board's main office, there is no such resolution or policy on the books.

The students were perplexed. The paper's staff, which is 50 percent Latino, argued that they democratically chose the most qualified students to represent them -- ethnicity was of no consequence. "It was kind of annoying," says 17-year-old Otis Cobb, who is African-American. "That [mandate] sort of took the spirit away from the trip."

Convening again in Mission High's newspaper room, the West Wing staffers decided that if the administration was going to force them to include a Latino in their delegation, then the administration could foot that student's bill. That was before racially mixed West Wing staff member Cassandra Charbonneau, acting on her journalist's instincts, went to Mission High's front office to check her official ethnic affiliation. Her French-sounding surname notwithstanding, two words on Charbonneau's registration card immediately settled the dispute: She was listed as Puerto Rican, making her a Latina in the eyes of the school administration.

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