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It 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 wasn’t 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 there–to 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 don’t understand," I’d 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 didn’t 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.

Photos by Candace DiCarlo

    Inside the school, I caught up with Katz. He didn’t 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. "That’s right," I answered. "They’re 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. It’s 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 that?"
   
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 don’t unfairly stereotype our city’s residents."
   
Another hand shot up. "But they’re all bad anyway. On the take. In my neighborhood, the cops, they’re 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 isn’t 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 didn’t the students ask him about any of those issues on the board?" I asked the teacher on my way out.
   
"Oh, this wasn’t 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 haven’t 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?

 

 

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