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A Student Government Election Made for TV

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Message Stuart Nachbar

This day, April 29, 2008, I spot a front page headline in my local New Jersey paper, The Trenton Times that reads: Students kept off ballot: District to explore race factor while rescheduling vote. Our local races for school board took place last week, so I thought this was an aftermath.

I was wrong: It was a story about a high school student government election in Ewing, the town where I live. Seven students, one black and Hispanic, five black and one white, were barred from running in their senior class elections the previous week-and no one told them why. An assistant superintendent told the reporter in an e-mail that the decision to bar the candidates was based on a "procedural review" by the principal. The quote marks are from the assistant superintendent, not me.

Neither the principal nor the faculty advisors for the election offered comment to the paper; the reporter had to rely on an e-mail to one of the parents to get clarification on why her daughter couldn't run for office. That e-mail from the teachers mentioned that she was ineligible to run because she had not participated in enough class meetings or fund raisers. One teacher later added, according to the mother, that her daughter used foul language when she questioned her ruling on the election.

This appears to be a scene from Election, a Tom Perrotta novel and movie starring Matthew Broderick and Reese Witherspoon where an idealistic teacher deliberately tries to rig a student election and keep the "do it all" girl from winning. Only racism never entered in that movie; it has in the Ewing story, although no one knows for sure.

When I was in high school there were no requirements to run for student government, no need for prior participation in anything at all, only current enrollment. We don't ask adult politicians to have prior electoral experience, why would it be asked of student leaders who must listen to their teachers?

It would be one thing if the individual students had some serious blots on their records: academic probations, multiple suspensions or incidents where they broke a law and law enforcement became involved. Even concerns about a platform to encourage an illegal act, such as legalization of marijuana are legitimate concerns for parents and teachers. But no evidence of misconduct was brought forward to the students, their parents and the press. That suggests either arrogance or foolishness; you, the reader can make that call.

The combination of "no comments" and ambiguous rules in a public school in New Jersey is scary. Parents and students still consider teachers authority figures, but not authoritarian and divine; there is a huge difference-and parents know it.

Ewing High's principal is trying to make things right by calling for new senior class elections. However, all of the "no comments" leave this school system open to embarrassment, innuendo, investigation by a state affirmative action agency, and possibly legal action. If an investigation found legitimate rationale for bias, then two teachers and a principal have put their careers at risk over nothing.

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Stuart Nachbar has been involved with education politics and econmic development for two decades. His debut novel, The Sex Ed Chronicles, a historical fiction story about sex education and politics in 1980 New Jersey, was published Fall 2007.
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