Board of Education addresses offensive La Jolla High School cartoon, hears call for principal's firing

In light of a controversial cartoon depicting offensive stereotypes that was published in the Jan. 23 La Jolla High School newspaper, Hi-Tide, some representatives from Barrio Logan College Institute are calling for the resignation of Principal Charles Podhorsky. Others, however, have rallied behind the principal, sending letters to San Diego Unified School District (SDUSD) administrators.

Students and faculty from the Barrio Logan College Institute spoke out against the cartoon and Podhorsky during the SDUSD Board of Education meeting, Feb. 13, at the administration building. The first was Jose Cruz, CEO of the Institute. He spoke with a group of students and supporters standing behind him, and his walk to the mic was met with applause.

After distributing the cartoon, he opened: “What you have before you is not a cartoon from the 1960s depicting horrible stereotypes of different people of different races … this was published in 2018. We believe all students should have access to an equal education and have the opportunity to go to any public school and be in an environment where they are allowed to learn. This is unacceptable.”

Institute board member Jesus Cisneros echoed: “The cartoon was racist, offensive and downright disgusting. The principal must be removed, plain and simple. If this incident does not show a very inherent and critical lack of cultural sensitivity, I have no idea what will.”

Students questioned how teens graduating from San Diego schools can be leaders of tomorrow when “their leaders hold the values of yesterday,” adding they have peers who attend La Jolla High and questioned how they felt seeing the cartoon.

The offending illustration showed nine people wearing hooded sweatshirts sporting stereotype messages on them. Examples include, “Kool Kids Klub,” “#1 (Juan) Cool Beans” and one with the West African Republic of Niger flag that reads “Niger.” The cartoon was intended to be a satire of the H&M clothing advertisement in which an African-American child is pictured wearing a sweatshirt that reads “coolest monkey in the jungle.”

During school board meetings, trustees may refer any matter to SDUSD Superintendent Cindy Marten for review and investigation. However, board president Kevin Beiser said an investigation to corrective action in the cartoon matter was already ongoing.

Michael McQuary, SDUSD trustee for District C (which includes La Jolla) apologized for the cartoon and, without lending an opinion on whether to depose Podhorsky, said a deeper understanding of why this took place was in order.

“(The) unfortunate, very hateful, bigoted, racist incident that happened at La Jolla High School does not represent the district, nor the community of La Jolla, but it happened,” McQuary said. “When I learned about the student newspaper cartoon, I contacted Superintendent Marten asking her to look into the incident — to determine not only what happened or look at one individual — but to dig deeper and examine the event in the context of the school culture and learning environment. (We want to) implement restorative procedures by which those involved, and the school community, could learn from the event and begin a healing process that would result in a solution that would be beneficial to all concerned.

“I want to publicly apologize for the incident. … While there may have been an effort to create humor and do comedy, I think this was not the right thing to do. In looking at the issue of free speech, free speech is limited. You cannot cry fire in a crowded theater.”

Those critical of Principal Podhorsky questioned how the cartoon was published in the first place, and why he waited two weeks to issue a statement about it. According to Hi-Tide faculty advisor Robert Boyd, Podhorsky has final say on whether an issue can be published, and that a final, but unpublished version is sent to Podhorsky each month electronically for approval.

Podhorsky explained: “We have acknowledged that there were missed opportunities by the adults to do a complete and thorough review prior to this student publication. As adults on campus, we have owned that we need to do a better job to guide our student publications.”

Two weeks after the cartoon was published, Podhorsky sent an e-mail to parents, which read in part: “La Jolla is a community that values the free speech of our students. However, with the right to free speech comes a responsibility. We have talked to those involved with the publication of this cartoon about this responsibility — and the need to take public ownership of their actions in this case.”

Locally, some parents have taken to supporting Podhorsky with e-mails to Superintendent Marten and school board trustees.

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