Students from Madison LaFollette High School are taking to social media to tout their successes and teachers are demanding an apology from a local television news station after what many saw as a biased news story about school discipline.
As part of its “Digging Deeper” series, Madison’s ABC affiliate WKOW looked into improvements in school discipline at LaFollette High School, where school district officials say suspensions for fighting fell from 16 in January to just 4 in April, at least in part due to specific measures the district has taken as part of its behavior modification plan. School district spokesperson Rachel Strauch-Nelson said attendance is also up over the last few months.
However, in a report that was ostensibly about those successes, reporter Tony Galli only interviewed white students and teachers who spoke primarily about many problems from the past. To illustrate those issues, a substantial portion of the three-minute news story, which has since been removed from the WKOW website, featured months-old video of Black students fighting or acting violently.
“That just seemed like a one-way attack on La Follette,” said freshman Tziah McNair. “Definitely there was some implicit bias there, I think. I was also very confused because it brought up old incidents, so it made the story feel outdated. Because we haven’t had fights in about three months or so. I also felt insulted by it, because it didn’t acknowledge the good parts of La Follette. It talks about the negative stuff, which obviously there’s more to La Follette than just that. I felt personally offended.”
“If you can pull up violent videos from months and a year ago, it would have been just as easy to highlight some of the amazing, positive things we have done at the school,” said senior Sharita Holden in an email to Madison365. “It would have been MOST important to interview students of color. If you insist on showing LHS’s students of color in such a negative light, the LEAST you could do is talk to some of those students. Or do we just seem too violent and hostile to approach? I see Black Excellence displayed at LHS everyday, but I guess painting us as Ill-mannered animals make for better news. If they would have shown videos of the LHS students of color reading in their AP classes, excelling in sports, or creating beautiful artwork, it wouldn’t have been as interesting. Black excellence isn’t expected.”
More than 70 teachers have signed onto a letter demanding a public apology from the station.
WKOW officials have stood by the story, but acknowledged that more diverse voices are important.
In an email to teacher Tony Jennaro, one of the teachers behind the letter, news director Ed Reams wrote, “First and foremost, I want to let you know we stand by our reporting. The story by reporter Tony Galli highlighted the reduction in violent incidents at your school and was not exclusively about La Follette even though it did talk about the history of challenges at La Follette … What we have learned from reaction to this story is that there are many more voices that need to be heard on this issue. We value diversity in every story we do. We hear you when you say more voices should have been part of this conversation. It is a conversation we hope will continue.”
Galli, the WKOW reporter on the story, wrote to Jennaro, “I stand by the accuracy, context, proportionality and purpose of the reporting on La Follette’s significant strides in improving school safety, and continuing concerns over some aspects of school life as it relates to safety and security.”
Jennaro called the response “unacceptable” and continues to demand a public apology.
Reams declined further comment to Madison365.
Students, for their part, have chosen to respond with positivity. McNair, Holden and others have encouraged their peers to take part in a positive response to the news story, using the #LHSExcellence hashtag.
La Follette is not a bad school or an unsafe place. However, local media chooses only to report on the negative aspects of the La Follette community. Fellow Lancers and alumni- share your positive experiences and success with #LHSExcellence and #WeAreLaFollette.
— HelenRottier (@helenrottier) May 24, 2018
“We’re getting all students at La Follette to try to write down something that they’re proud of that they’ve achieved this year or something overall positive about La Follette to try to change the narrative that La Follette is this violent, unlawful school,” McNair said. “We’re trying to show that there’s more to La Follette, there’s just this negativity that the news channel has given us, I guess.”
Four years ago I graduated from La Follette HS. Two weeks ago I graduated from UW-Madison, and in August I am moving to Chicago to begin my PhD in disability studies, focusing on autism research. #LHSExcellence #WeAreLaFollette pic.twitter.com/5rYsIHPX5O
— HelenRottier (@helenrottier) May 24, 2018
— LaFolletteCounselors (@LAF_Counselors) May 24, 2018
“#LHSExcellence is a student-led campaign to highlight all the accomplishments and talents of (LHS) students,” Holden said. “A group of students, including myself, went classroom to classroom to take a few minutes to explain to our peers the necessity of being proud of ALL your accomplishments and celebrating your greatness. Why only highlight the bad, when there is so much good? We had our peers write on a half sheet of paper something that they did in school or outside of school that made them feel proud of themselves. They looked so happy to talk about their accomplishments! LHS has the potential to be an amazing school. We just have to keep reaching higher.”