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Stuyvesant student elections in turmoil after winner disqualified

A series of seemingly minor campaign violations cost the winning candidate for student body president at elite Stuyvesant High School the election. But with a flair for drama that conjures up scenes from the movie “Election,” he isn’t giving up.

When votes were tallied earlier this week, Jack Cahn won in a relative landslide, 447 votes to 329. But Cahn, a junior, learned he was disqualified late Tuesday night when the school’s Board of Elections, a 19-member student body, released the results.

Now, Cahn and his supporters, led by a twin brother who is also editor of the student paper, are waging a campaign to have the decision over turned. They are petitioning online, posting updates to Facebook and appealing their case to administrators, despite already getting word that the ruling would be upheld.

The saga is decidedly low stakes. It’s Regents week and most students at the 3200-student school today were focused on their exams. Many seemed only vaguely aware of the controversy and two teachers said they hadn’t heard about it at all.

Some students also said that they didn’t consider the election to have much of an impact on their school lives, though everyone agreed that a chronic lack of toilet paper and paper towels in the restrooms, a major issue in the race, was a legitimate concern.

Like most positions in student government, the role of president at Stuyvesant is primarily one of advisory. But Cahn campaigned aggressively. He pledged to elevate student voice and demand changes to some school policies, even vowing to threaten to go to the press if promises weren’t kept.

“Right now, students at Stuy have very little power,” Cahn said. “We are feeling very disrespected.”

His campaigning also landed him in hot water with the Board of Elections, which enforces the school’s 8-page election regulations. Before the election, Cahn received ”strikes” for posting too many posters in one place and leaving personal belongings in the school’s student union office.

The third violation, which was reported on election day and triggered the disqualification, was for “slander” of Cahn’s opponent. A small faction of the board made the decision based on a private Facebook message that gently criticized his opponent’s record, which Cahn sent to other candidates seeking their endorsements.

Cahn said he believed he has been unfairly targeted by the Board of Elections because he posed a threat to the administration.

“There’s a general perception that the reason I’m being disqualified is that I’m the first candidate in probably four years that anyone has seen that actually stands a chance of strengthening student government,” Cahn said outside the school on Friday. He wore a suit because he was planning to meet with administrators again to discuss his appeal.

Cahn said that he had ambitious plans as president, which included setting up a way for students to evaluate teachers online. That proposal, he said, drew criticism from one teacher at the school who called him “anti-teacher” while campaigning.

In some ways, the controversy is the latest incident in a long history of activism at the prestigious school that has occasionally rankled the administration. Often, that activism has been channeled through the century old student newspaper, The Spectator. In 1998, a 16-year-old Micah Lasher was part of an editorial team that published articles criticizing the policy of filling teacher vacancies based on seniority. The administration eventually shut the paper down until Lasher launched a successfu campaign to get the paper restored. For Lasher, it was the first of what would become many disputes with education bureaucracy.

Cahn’s brother, David, started a petition on Change.org that has 250 signatures calling on the principal, Jie Zhang, to overturn the decision. And while David, editor of The Spectator, has recused himself from the paper’s coverage because of the conflict of interest, articles and op-eds published to its web site have been favorablto Jack.

The controversy has also been fodder for debate on Cahn’s Facebook page, where students involved in Stuyvesant elections, both past and present, have argued over how the election was handled. Some said the Board of Elections abused its authority by enforcing rules for petty violations.

“Even though these rules might be antiquated and might seem unfair, we can’t change the rules in the middle,” wrote a former board chairman who has since graduated. “It is as if the judge changed the rule in the middle of the soccer game.”

Zhang heard Cahn’s appeal and upheld the Board of Education’s decision on Wednesday.

“We recognize that the BOE, like all organizations, is imperfect, nevertheless it serves as a vital buffer between the school administration and the election process,” Zhang wrote.

In her email, Zhang, who did not respond to requests for comment, said she hoped that Cahn “will accept this decision with dignity, and will find other ways of serving the school.”

But Cahn said he would keep fighting and hoped that support from his opposition would help his case. Keiran Carpen, a sophomore who ran as vice president on the opposing ticket, said that he was prepared to concede the victory, a source of disagreement between him and the new president, Eddie Zilberbrand.

“As much as I want to win … I just don’t think it’s fair to win on these grounds,” Carpen said.