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S.F. principal withholds student vote results: valuable lesson or election fraud?

Principal Lena Van Haren postponed releasing the results of the Everett Middle School's student government elections because the winners did not reflect the diversity of the school. 

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Principal Lena Van Haren, center, speaks with former student Kayla Rash outside Everett Middle School in San Francisco, on Monday. A student election at a mostly black and Hispanic middle school turned into a fierce debate about the democratic process when the school's principal delayed announcing the election results over concerns they did not reflect the school's diverse student body.

Connor Radnovich/San Francisco Chronicle/AP

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Everett Middle School, in San Francisco’s Mission District, held its first student government election in several years on Oct. 9.

But Lena Van Haren, the principal, opted to delay releasing the results until Monday, more than a week after they were first available, saying she wanted to engage all the candidates in a discussion in order to ensure that the school’s diversity was reflected in its student government.

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“I feel really strongly that it's not just about having a diverse student council so it looks nice," Ms. Van Haren told the Associated Press. “I, as principal, want to elevate student voices and see how they are experiencing school. If I'm missing certain groups, I'm not going to get a clear picture.”

The student body at Everett is 56 percent Hispanic and 9 percent African American, enrollment numbers from the California Department of Education show. She said those students were particularly underrepresented among the winning candidates from the 500-student school, which serves students in sixth through eighth grade.

There were no English language learners elected in the race, which troubled Van Haren, who said those students make up a majority of the school’s Hispanic students. While the results were somewhat diverse, the San Francisco Chronicle reports, African American and Latino students were underrepresented, while white, Asian, and mixed-race students – who make up a smaller number of the overall student body – won the top four positions.

But the principal’s move irked many parents, who argued the principal had undermined the election process in favor of pursuing a broader social justice goal.

“My criticism of the Everett administration is their good intention got in the way of their common sense,” Todd David, whose son is an eighth-grader at the school, told the Chronicle. “It’s really, really disturbing to me that withholding the results somehow equals social justice or equity. That is where I totally disconnect. I’m like, ‘Whoa.’ ”

Van Haren said she had never intended to cancel the election or invalidate its results. But, she argued, she had wanted to wait until students were able to weigh in and create a plan to increase the student leaders’ diversity to better reflect the school. One suggestion was to consider adding positions, the Chronicle reports.

“This is complex, but as a parent and a principal, I truly believe it behooves us to be thoughtful about our next steps here so that we can have a diverse student council that is truly representative of all voices at Everett,” she told parents in an e-mail Thursday.

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But the decision to delay the vote angered some students and troubled some parents, leaving them wondering about whether this was an example of fixing an election, even one as small as a student government race.

“The thing that’s so frustrating to me, as a parent and an engaged citizen, is you release the results and then you form committees,” said Mr. David. “How can you say, ‘In the name of social justice, we’re going to withhold election results’?”

But other parents disagreed, saying that, perhaps unintentionally, the elections mirrored a real-world process where candidates with more resources often win elections and hold power.

“They’re living in the real world at Everett,” Melissa Daar Carvajal, whose two sons are in sixth grade at the school, told the Chronicle.

“I think for me, I’m really glad the school went through the election and kids selected representatives and now they’re looking at how to represent underrepresented students,” she said, calling the the principal “great.”

Van Haren acknowledged the backlash from parents, saying that perhaps delaying the results wasn’t the best approach.

“Of course I look back and we should have communicated the winners right away. I could never have predicted things would get to this point,” she told the Chronicle on Monday.

But, she told the paper, “I think it still can be a teachable moment.”

This report contains material from the Associated Press.