is only three blocks from my office at the Annenberg School for Communication
to the entrance of University City High School. But when I arrived there
one day last February to begin a new project bringing politics into schools,
I knew right away that working in this new world wasnt going to
be easy. The dead giveaway was the WHYY cameraman cooling his heels
at the entrance to the school.
I knew why he was thereto
shoot videotape of Republican mayoral candidate Sam Katz as he fielded
questions from students. I also knew why he was outside the school rather
than inside with the candidate. Earlier that day, I had been on the phone
with the communications director of the School District of Philadelphia,
protesting her decision not to let WHYY, or any other TV station,
follow a candidate into a school. "But you dont understand,"
Id pleaded. "This project is about encouraging the media to
cover students talking issues with candidates. Bringing the campaign into
the classroom. And this is public television." But she held
firm. The district didnt want students used as props in ads or for
any other publicity stunt. WHYY would not be permitted to enter University
City High that day.
the school, I caught up with Katz. He didnt seem to mind that he
was about to spend an hour with mostly non-voters minus the sweetener
of media coverage. "So these students have been studying the campaign?"
he asked me. "Thats right," I answered. "Theyre
developing a youth issues agenda." When the candidate entered the
crowded classroom and introduced himself, he noticed the list of issues
on the blackboard. "Reducing crime," he read out. "Whose
idea was that?"
The class was silent. Two
students were asleep on their desks. No one seemed to remember anything
about crime, or any other issue on the list. Katz shrugged his shoulders,
a little confused. "Well, let me tell you what I would do as mayor
about crime in this city
" he went on gamely.
He got little response from
the students, until the subject of the police came up.
"Yo," one of the
students called out.
"My name is Sam. Or
Mr. Katz. Its not Yo."
The student continued, "My
cousin, he be standing on the corner one day, and the police come around
and they took him to the station. And he doing nothin. Just cause
he black, they take him in and keep him there til his grandmother come
and get him. That happen all the time to us. What you gon do about
Katz responded. "What
you are talking about is something called racial profiling,
which means that police stop people on the basis of their skin color.
As mayor, I would do everything in my power to make sure that the police
department did not practice racial profiling. I think we need to spend
more time and effort training our police officers so that they dont
unfairly stereotype our citys residents."
Another hand shot up. "But
theyre all bad anyway. On the take. In my neighborhood, the cops,
theyre in with the drug dealers."
"I will tell you, when
I am mayor, I will investigate any situation you tell me about that suggests
that a police officer has broken the law. But let me tell you something
else. An accusation like that is very, very serious. Understand that if
you make it, and it is found to be true, appropriate disciplinary action
will be taken. But if you make that accusation and it isnt true,
well, then you will have to take responsibility."
More hands went up, with
more stories about kids being wronged by the police. Finally, Katz thanked
the class for inviting him and quickly left.
"Why didnt the
students ask him about any of those issues on the board?" I asked
the teacher on my way out.
"Oh, this wasnt
my class of seniors who are doing the project," she answered cheerfully.
"We had an assembly this morning, and it threw our schedule off.
This was my ninth-grade class. They havent been studying the campaign."
My heart sank. As I walked
back to my office at Penn, I wondered what I could have been thinking
three months before when I proposed this project to Annenberg School Dean
Kathleen Hall Jamieson. How could I have possibly thought it would work?