On Oct. 6, Everett Middle School welcomed a special visitor. As students cheered and clapped, Chelsea Clinton walked across the San Francisco academy’s wooden stage and hugged Everett’s mascot, a humongous brown and white owl.
Clinton was at Everett to promote a book, but when she learned that the public school was about to hold its first student council election in several years, the former first daughter couldn’t help but chime in with words of encouragement.
“I don’t think anyone should ever rule out politics as a way to make a difference,” she said, according to ABC 7.
If students were inspired, however, it didn’t last long.
When Everett held its election three days later, its principal promptly refused to release the results, saying she was concerned that the winners were not diverse enough.
While she would ultimately relent and release the results, her decision spurred anger among parents and kids who felt that the principal was putting diversity ahead of democracy. Critics compared her to a dictator who scraps elections when results don’t go her way. It was the middle school equivalent of hanging chads and a near political crisis, only without a Supreme Court to hear the case.
What was supposed to be a civics lesson had quickly devolved into chaos.
“The whole school voted for those people, so it is not like people rigged the game,” seventh-grader Sebastian Kaplan told KRON 4, who had run for class representative yet had no clue a week later if he won. “But in a way, now it is kinda being rigged.”
The controversy began as soon as the Oct. 9 election results rolled in. Everett’s 36-year-old principal, Lena Van Haren, was disturbed by the lack of diversity among the winners, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.
The school sits in San Francisco’s Mission District, a historically diverse neighborhood that has recently struggled with both gentrification and gang violence. Everett is as much a melting pot as the community, with 80 percent of its population comprised of students of color. Only 20 percent of students are white, Van Haren told KTVU.
The results of the election, however, gave the principal pause.
Students weren’t exactly expecting real-time streaming results, but they were surprised not to learn who had won when they showed up to school the following Monday. By Wednesday, the situation was getting weird.
On Thursday, nearly a week after the election, Van Haren sent out an e-mail to parents explaining her decision to withhold the election results.
“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 wrote, according to the Chronicle. Van Haren then suggested the school “add positions” to improve diversity, KTVU reported.
And that’s when the civics hit the fan.
Students who had run for office were left in limbo, wondering if they had won or lost and if it even mattered anymore. Parents were equally confused. Eventually, that confusion turned into annoyance, then anger.
“I wanted to get more involved and change some things,” Kaplan, the seventh-grader running for class representative, told KRON 4, practically quoting Chelsea Clinton verbatim. “I feel like it is disrespectful to all the people who were running,” he said of the strange silence over election results.
Parents turned to local media to claim that political correctness had trumped common sense — not to mention democracy.
“My criticism of the Everett administration is their good intention got in the way of their common sense,” parent Todd David 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.’ ”
Others said that diversity is all fine and good, but it should have been addressed before the election, not afterward in an ad hoc manner.
“That should have been something [discussed] prior to elections and prior to the campaigning process,” another Everett parent, Bianca Gutierrez, told KTVU.
The irony that a middle school student election had turned into a political quagmire worthy of Congress wasn’t lost on anyone.
“If we can’t teach them the right way it’s supposed to work, then we are really just letting our kids down,” Gutierrez said. “My heart goes out to the kids because they’re confused still about the issue.”
If the story upset students and parents in the Mission District, it soon spread to the rest of San Francisco, and beyond.
“Well, the children’s voices were heard. They just seemed to be less obsessed with race than some administrators are,” wrote UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh, in his blog Volokh Conspiracy hosted by The Washington Post.
In the echo chamber of the Internet, the Everett Middle School student body election quickly became twisted into the latest salvo in America’s culture war.
“San Fran Middle School Cancels Student Elections Because Too Many White People Elected,” ran a factually incorrect headline on the conservative Web site the Daily Caller.
“Middle School Principal Blocks Student Election Results After Not Enough Minorities Win,” read a slightly less mistaken headline in Mediaite.
In the comments section of local media, critics demanded Van Haren’s resignation. Some ominously quoted George Orwell’s dystopian novel “1984.” Others compared her to a slew of strongmen.
“I’m sure Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini and Napoleon did the same in the name of some bulls— excuse,” another wrote.
Amid the hyperbole, however, there was a genuine, general concern that the principal’s decision to sit on the election results was not the most democratic example.
“So it’s more important to be ‘diverse’ than democratic,” one commenter wrote sarcastically. “Good to know.”
“You do not get to negate … democratic election results because you would have preferred them to be different,” another echoed.
“Kids chose based on popularity,” added a third. “Can the PC diversity crap.”
On Monday, as news of Everett’s election went national, Van Haren ultimately gave in, going from class to class and announcing the election results.
“While there was some diversity among the 10 winners, no English learners were elected, even though they make up about a third of enrollment,” the Chronicle reported. “African American and Latino students were underrepresented, while white, Asian and mixed-race students, who are in the minority at the school, took the top four spots.”
Van Haren also announced on Monday that she never had any intention of nullifying the election results.
“We paused to have a conversation,” she told the Chronicle. “I never, ever said we wouldn’t share the results or they weren’t good enough.
“This is middle school. It’s not a presidential election,” Van Haren added. “It was not about hurting democracy or putting diversity over democracy.”
Yet, some parents said the principal had done just that, and instead of introducing her students to democracy had underlined the gulf between Everett’s election and the real thing.
“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,” David told the Chronicle. “How can you say, ‘In the name of social justice, we’re going to withhold election results’?”
Van Haren declined to comment to The Post when reached by phone on Monday night. But she hasn’t backed down from her belief that a diverse population should translate to equally diverse representatives.
“It’s not okay for a school that is really, really diverse to have the student representatives majority white,” she told the Chronicle. “The easy thing would have been to announce the results and move on. I intentionally did not choose the easy way because this is so important.”
Some parents supported her, pointing out that Van Haren was struggling with the same societal problems that produce a Congress that is 80 percent white and 80 percent male in a country that is more than 50 percent female and 38 percent non-white (including Hispanics).
“Here we are in a school and the same thing happens,” Melissa Daar Carvajal, who has two sons at Everett, told the Chronicle. “They’re living in the real world at Everett.”
Van Haren did admit, however, that she could have handled the controversy better by announcing the election results right away.
“I could never have predicted things would get to this point,” she told the Chronicle, adding that she hoped the civics lesson gone wrong could still be “a teachable moment.”