Is there such a thing as being too politically correct in San Francisco? Yes — but a public official has to overreach drastically to hit that mark. Everett Middle School principal Lena Van Haren did just that when she chose to withhold the results of her school’s Oct. 9 student council election because students had elected too many white kids. “It’s not OK for a school that is really, really diverse to have the student representatives majority white,” Van Haren told the San Francisco Chronicle’s Jill Tucker as her decision made national news. On Monday, Van Haren finally released the names of the winners.
Van Haren insists that she never intended to interfere with the results; she just wanted to wait to release them until the school had developed a plan to increase the student council’s diversity. One possible remedy would be to add seats so that African-American and Latino children are better-represented. And: “I think it still can be a teachable moment.” Problem: I don’t think Van Haren understands that she’s the one who has a whole lot to learn.
Before Van Haren released the results, student Sebastian Kaplan told KRON-TV school administrators say they “want everyone’s voice to be heard” but then, when they don’t like the results, don’t respect students’ choices. It didn’t seem to matter, noted Kaplan, who later learned he won the coveted slot of seventh-grade representative, that “the whole school voted for those people.”
Parent Todd David believes that Van Haren is “a good person” — with the best of intentions — who “screwed this up royally.” No lie. She didn’t like the election results, so she did not release them. “How can you say that, in the name of social justice, we’re going to withhold election results?” David asked. Van Haren claimed that she withheld the results so that the school could have a conversation. How can students have an informed discussion when they don’t know who won?
The progressive David told me that he could be open to the school’s creating extra seats to make the student council more inclusive. I worry that if Everett were to add seats to include African-Americans and Latinos, that would send a message that underrepresented minority students cannot succeed without special breaks. The more you think about it, the more the idea seems downright demeaning.
There’s another not-so-subtle message in this story: Black kids are supposed to vote for black kids. Likewise Latinos. If they don’t vote for their own kind, it doesn’t matter whom they support. As David noted, Van Haren suggests that “a white student can’t be representative of a Latino student.” He added, “I’m not sure that the students see it that way.” Many young teens have moved beyond racial designations.
If a student body that is 56 percent Latino and 9 percent African-American votes the top four slots to whites, Asians, and mixed-race students, who is Van Haren (who also is white) to say it is wrong? I’d call her attitude — mmm — paternalistic. The principal told KTVU-TV she wants her students to be “agents of change.” Guess what. They are.
One last point. San Francisco is a city where dogs outnumber children. City Hall has been desperate to think up schemes to keep families with children in the city — and to persuade middle-class and affluent parents to send their children to public schools. Everett succeeded in attracting such families, and their reward is to be disrespected.
In a letter to the “Everett family community,” Van Haren said the school leadership team wanted to respond “in a way that makes everyone feel valued.” Bunk. Van Haren’s actions devalued the success of top student council vote-getters and the choices made by students who supported them.
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