Everett Middle School in San Francisco’s Mission District is teaching its students a thing or two about democracy . . . or the lack of it. Parents were informed by Principal Lena Van Haren (left) that the winners of the recent student elections would not be announced (or possibly honored) after the election failed to produce a sufficiently diverse selection. The school is composed of 80 percent students of color and 20 percent white students. The students however appeared to pick their representatives based on their individual qualifications rather than their race and that was a problem for Van Haren who told parents that the results were “concerning to me because as principal I want to make sure all voices are heard from all backgrounds.”
The school is now reportedly moving to changing the make up of the school representatives to satisfy its diversity expectations. Van Haren called a meeting with all the student candidates and administration to talk about the best way to move forward. Here’s one suggestion: honor the results of the election and stop using race to penalize certain students based on the color of their skin. These kids campaigned and received the support of the majority of their classmates, who were not as preoccupied with race and de facto quotas as the school.
However, Van Haren refused to budge on the demand that representatives first and foremost must satisfy a racial quota. Yet, she insisted that “We’re not nullifying the election, we’re not cancelling the election and we’re not saying this didn’t count.” No, you are just refusing to announce the winners and changing the results.
In a truly chilling spin, Van Haren insisted “I’m very hopeful this can be a learning experience and actually be something that embodied our vision which is to help students make positive change.” Well, it is a learning experience . . . just not a good one. You are teaching students that race does matter and that it is not enough to simply secure the trust and support of your fellow students. You are teaching them that the color of their skin is the predominant criteria and, if the student body does not produce a representative body, the school will impose its own selection.
After an outcry, Van Haren back pedaled:
Everett Middle School is honoring the results of the Associated Student Body (ASB) elections. This is our first student council at Everett Middle School in recent history and we started up a student council because we want our students to have several ways to develop their leadership skills and be a part of shaping our school. We want a student leadership body that includes the range of perspectives and experiences of our students and we believe a representative body is an important part of democracy.
When we reviewed the results of our Associated Student Body (ASB) elections on Friday, October 9th, we saw that it was not fully representative of our school population. I made the decision to pause on sharing the results with the students in order to capitalize on a teachable moment. I wanted to have a conversation with all of the candidates and ask for their ideas to make sure that all voices and groups are represented in our ASB. In retrospect, I understand how this decision to pause created concerns. Today I visited classrooms to announce the winners of the elections.
There are many challenges and opportunities that this situation surfaces. Especially now, at a time when our school and community’s population is undergoing demographic change, I believe that we have a responsibility to take these conversations seriously, appreciating both their complexity and their urgency. There are no easy answers, so I am looking forward to talking as a community about how we can grow and get better at this for the rest of the year and into next year.
It is certainly good to see why Van Heran understands now why her decision “create concern” but she clearly does not view her initial action (or the suggestion of dictating representatives on the basis of race) as wrong. Instead, she still wants the students to reexamine their decision (which she continues to view as problematic) based solely on the race of the winners. These is in fact an “easy answer.” Let the children select their representatives and stop imposing race quotas or criteria. Try teaching that students should be seen for their individual worth and not counted on the basis of their skin color. The simple answer to is stop imposing race-based rules or values on students who appear to be voting on the basis of individual merit. They do not need to “grow and get better at this.” The need for growth is clearly found with Van Haren and some of her colleagues in the San Francisco school system.
It now appears that the solution to democracy is that the school intends to simply add more positions that will be given to minority students to meet the de facto quota based on race.