student democracy

Stuyvesant student elections in turmoil after winner disqualified

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Jack Cahn (center), who was disqualified from Stuyvesant’s student body president election this week, talks with a former opponent, Keiran Carpen (left), and his running mate Remi Moon.

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.

 

 

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.


For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.


Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede