Wednesday, December 13, 2017
Education

Video designed to boost Chamberlain High strikes a sour note (w/video)

TAMPA — The Chamberlain High welcome video has been a learning experience — but not the kind the school intended.

Civil rights leaders reached out this week to the principal, the superintendent and the Tampa Police Department about the video's depiction of officers arresting an African American student and then making light of it.

"I think everybody agrees it was poor judgment," said Yvette Lewis, president of the Hillsborough County Branch NAACP.

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But what was not agreed upon, at least until now, was what kind of oversight was needed before the video hit the internet.

At a time when businesses, social movements and even a big public school system are all scrapping to get noticed on social media, students in a television production class at Chamberlain made a video aimed at boosting school spirit.

The only D-rated high school in Hillsborough, Chamberlain is attempting a turnaround under the leadership of Jake Russell, who was successful as principal of Sickles High. Russell hired new administrators and teachers, and the district is seeking a $2.9 million grant from the state's new "Schools of Hope" program.

The video, set to television sit-com music with credits that showed the school leaders as stars, was to appear on Monday's Morning Show as a way of introducing the new team. One student, according to district spokeswoman Tanya Arja, was so enthusiastic, he posted it on Twitter. Someone from the school saw the tweet, liked it and retweeted it Friday on the school's Twitter account.

Here's the problem: One scene showed school resource officer Manuel Santana — a sworn Tampa Police Department officer — and school security officer Brian Sweet pretending to arrest an African American student. The two men then turned to the camera, smiled and gave thumbs-up signs.

The video caught the eye of community leaders who are concerned about a phenomenon known as the "school to prison pipeline," in which black students are arrested in numbers disproportionate to the general population. Hillsborough, through staff training and student counseling, has been working for years to reduce those disparities.

Calls were made to superintendent Jeff Eakins. "By Saturday evening it was taken down," Arja said. A revised video shows the two officers outside a squad car without the student.

Eakins issued this statement:

"There was no ill intent. But the scene in the video should not have been created. The school administrators and staff at Chamberlain High School are focused on creating a positive school culture. The original video was taken down and redone to depict the true atmosphere at Chamberlain High School, which is a family environment. Moving forward, the administrators will ensure all videos created by students in class are reviewed before posting or publishing on school or district sponsored communications."

But questions remained.

Albert Fields, first vice president of the NAACP, was frustrated when he called the district for details and was told repeatedly that the video was student-created. "The administrators are still responsible," he said. "I thought we had gone past shifting the blame and I thought we were going to step up."

While he acknowledged the arrest scene would be problematic regardless of the student's race, Fields said, "that just adds salt to the wound."

Lewis, who pursued the matter with the school and the police department, came away reassured that the district is taking the right steps to prevent a similar lapse. "I felt like they all took ownership of it," she said. "Let this be a teachable moment."

Police spokesman Stephen Hegarty said Santana was spoken to but not disciplined. "We're pleased that the kids included him in the video," Hegarty said. "It speaks well of his relationship with the students." But a supervisor told Santana the staged arrest "could have a bad perception."

Sweet was similarly counseled, Arja said. And the school is tightening protocols to review videos before they are shared. "We need to ensure that we teach and lead our students to be culturally sensitive," she said.

Arja said that, to her knowledge, no student or parent from Chamberlain found fault with the video.

Cindy Stuart, the School Board member whose district includes Chamberlain, said she, too, is unaware of any complaints. "And when something happens at Chamberlain, I know about it," she said, adding that the school has come a long way under Russell's leadership to cut down on discipline problems.

But there was disappointment from the parent whose son appeared in the video. While declining to speak with a reporter, the parent said through Arja that her family is "sad and disappointed that this is even an issue. The school cares about each of these kids like family."

Contact Marlene Sokol at (813) 226-3356 or [email protected] Follow @marlenesokol.

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