‘Disrespectful,’ ‘racist’ cartoon in La Jolla High newspaper draws ire

An editorial cartoon that ran in the La Jolla High School student newspaper is drawing criticism for depicting offensive stereotypes. The cartoon was featured in the Jan. 23 issue of the Hi-Tide monthly newspaper, which was approved for publication by Principal Charles Podhorsky.

Two weeks after the issue was published, Podhorsky issued a statement calling the cartoon (created by the paper’s cartoon editor) “an error in judgment and a breach of all the values we hold dear.”

The illustration depicts nine people wearing hooded sweatshirts with different stereotypes on them. One reads “Kool Kids Klub,” another shows a Mexican man wearing a “#1 (Juan) Cool Beans” sweatshirt, complete with mustache and a gap between his two front teeth. Another man is depicted with an afro, wide nose and large lips, wearing a sweatshirt bearing the flag of West African Republic of Niger, and reads “Niger,” and the remaining characters continue the stereotyping.

The cartoon, students say, was intended as a satire of the recent H&M advertisement in which an African-American child is wearing a sweatshirt that reads “coolest monkey in the jungle.” The retailer apologized following backlash for the ad, stating: “We have got this wrong and we agree that, even if unintentional, passive or casual racism needs to be eradicated wherever it exists.”

In an e-mail to parents, Principal Podhorsky said: “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.

“We want you to know that San Diego Unified and La Jolla High strive to be welcoming communities, and your well-being matters to all of us. … This situation reminds us all that we have more work to do to deliver the future all our children deserve.”

Ephrata Abate, a senior at La Jolla High, told The San Diego Union-Tribune: “I understand that free speech is necessary at school, but you can’t confuse free speech with hate speech.” Of Podhorsky waiting two weeks to issue a statement, she adds: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”

Campus ‘Free Speech Board’

Following the publication of the cartoon, members of the Black Student Union hung a banner across the “Free Speech Board” on the campus quad that read: “Can this be addressed?” Another large sheet of paper with the message, “How do you feel?” was posted along the top of the board and the message, “Political Satire?” was posted along the bottom.

Students saturated the poster paper with comments. Some contained profanity-laden slurs and criticized those “triggered” as coming from “snowflakes” (students deemed ultra-sensitive) and others opined that the cartoon was just “a joke.”

Further comments read: “You should not give racism a microphone.” “It’s messed up.” “Disappointed, but not surprised.”

Langston Aron, a junior at La Jolla High and member of the Black Student Union told La Jolla Light: “When I first saw it, I felt like it was disrespectful. It was racist and I didn’t understand why it got published. No one noticed it at first … but we had a Black Student Union meeting the next week, where we talked about it and then sent e-mails to Principal Podhorsky and (Hi-Tide faculty advisor) Robert Boyd, and didn’t get a response. That’s why we placed the published comic around campus and hung the poster paper.”

Aron said the response from the school seemed “a little late for just an apology,” and if Podhorsky “had said something right away, it would be different. But the apology shows no, they are not going to act to make a change.”

A change Aron would like to see is cultural sensitivity courses given to the school and the formation of a board of well-informed students to work with administrators and newspaper staff.

Faculty advisor Boyd told the Light via e-mail: “The newspaper is completely student run, but a finished — but unpublished — version of the issue is submitted to the <FZ,1,0,15>principal for approval. “(Podhorsky) has final say on whether an issue can be published or not. For the most current issue, the editors-in-chief followed this process and received from Dr. Podhorsky an e-mail that said something like, ‘Looks great.’ ”

In delving into the process, Boyd said: “Dr. Podhorsky exercises his right as the principal of LJHS to review each issue of the newspaper before it goes to print. ... In the last two years, he has usually been presented with a digital copy, e-mailed to him at his SDUSD address by the editor(s)-in-chief. As a courtesy, the current editors-in-chief e-mail him a few days beforehand to let him know when he will be receiving the second e-mail with the actual issue for review.

“Per SDUSD policy, Dr. Podhorsky then has four hours from the time of receipt to review the issue. If he has any concerns that would lead him to not allowing the newspaper to be published, he is required to put these concerns in writing and present them to the editors-in-chief within these four hours. From there, it would then be up to the editors-in-chief to decide if they wanted to pursue an appeal.”

Podhorsky responded: “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.”

In September 2017, La Jolla High School was named a National PTA School of Excellence. In the recognition, the school’s welcome banner was mentioned as being “prominently displayed throughout campus showing the 32 languages spoken at LJHS.”

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