An attempt to engineer diversity in student government at a public high school in San Francisco has drawn scrutiny from parents who claim faculty tried to replace an appointed student leader with another student because of his Latino last name.
For the first time, administrators at Raoul Wallenberg High School decided last September to forgo the democratic process in student elections and appoint members of the freshman class to most of the seats on the student council. The freshman president and all student leaders for other grade levels were still elected.
Part of the reasoning behind the change was to “encourage more diversity in our student leadership,” according to Principal Cheryl Foster, who responded to questions from the San Francisco Examiner through a district spokesperson.
But the attempt reportedly elicited outrage at a community meeting on April 28 from students who wanted the right to vote and parents like Christina Martinez, who said school officials tried to court her son, James Ortiz, 15, onto the student council because of his surname.
The practice could violate the San Francisco Unified School District’s student handbook, under which students have the right to a “free election of their peers in the student government.”
Assistant Principal Zaia Vera reportedly told Martinez she wanted Ortiz in office because it would make the student government look more diverse. Asian girls were the predominant candidates for student office in recent years.
“She said to me, ‘Mrs. Martinez, you could understand as a fellow Latina what we’re looking for here,” Martinez, who is not Latina, recalled. “‘We only have Asian girls run for office and we want the Wallenberg website to show not only Asian girls.’”
The majority of students at Wallenberg — 53 percent — in the 2014-15 school year were Asian, according to the district.
“Our school is predominantly Asian, so if more Asian students run for student government, well, that’s inevitable,” said Elisa Yeung, the junior class treasurer. “People who are of a minority race, for example, if they don’t run maybe it’s because there are less of those students at our school.”
Ortiz was thrilled to make posters, stickers and his stump speech when he threw his hat into the ring for vice president of the ninth-grade class last September.
“He was very excited when he came home from school and said ‘my teacher has nominated me to run for vice president,’” Martinez said. “I thought they saw something in him: leadership or merit or good grades.”
But it turned out there apparently was another reason Ortiz was pushed to fill the student leadership role, according to Martinez.
After it was announced that another student was selected for the vice president seat, Ortiz was called into the principal’s office on three occasions, his mother said. Faculty twice encouraged him to become freshman treasurer.
On the third occasion, Ortiz and the white student who was selected as vice president were both called into the office. Faculty then asked the appointed vice president to step down so that Ortiz could take her seat, which he declined.
“They were, like, bribing me into being on the student council,” said Ortiz, who, despite his last name, identifies as white. “It was basically a thanks, but no thanks.”
At the meeting last week, Foster reportedly admitted that freshmen were not allowed “a free and fair election,” according to Teresa Moeller, who runs communications for the Parent, Teacher, Student Association at Wallenberg.
Moeller took notes during the meeting and recorded Foster as saying, “We learned a lot from this, from children like [Ortiz], who didn’t want us to install them into posts they were not elected for.”
In her statement to the Examiner, Foster said the process “worked to encourage non-traditional candidates and resulted in a diverse ninth grade group of officers.” In one case, a freshman had not considered running until he was recommended by faculty.
But a proposal at the school to make appointments in all grade levels this semester was shot down by students, Foster said.
Yeung, the junior treasurer, said she believed the elected process was the way to go.
“You should learn the skills to be able to say I want to run for this and here’s why, be able to tell people you should vote for me because this, this and this,” Yeung said. “I think that’s a great way for us to learn as students.”
S.F. Examiner staff writer Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez contributed to this report.