Townsend Harris High School (THHS) is a public school affiliated with Queens College in New York. The high school provides a rigorous curriculum for its students with an emphasis on the humanities and classics. The faculty recognizes the interdisciplinary importance of writing, and this humanities focus is what sets Townsend Harris apart from other intensive academic schools in New York City.
The school’s respected student newspaper, The Classic, has been involved in exposing Townsend’s temporary principal, Rosemarie Jahoda, since December of last year. Jahoda, who has been a city educator for 16 years, has been accused of ignoring concerns of Muslim students after they reported discrimination, mistreating LGBTQ students and students with disabilities, and disrupting students’ chances of attending college by withholding transcripts, among other allegations.
Many school “sit-ins,” all documented by The Classic, have been organized by the students in protest of Jahoda and the Department of Education’s (DOE) neglectful behavior towards Townsend Harris students. The allegations have even led to a petition calling to dismiss the principal, which currently has over 3,500 signatures. Students intend for the petition to reach 5,000.
A representative from the superintendent’s office provided a report about the situation, in which she referred to the information being circulated about Jahoda as “fake news.” However, the representative happened to be Frances DeSanctis, Jahoda’s mentor. This relationship begs the question of what DeSanctis’s intentions and possible biases were in providing the report herself.
Due to the fact that the majority of the news reported about Jahoda originally came from Townsend’s own newspaper, students believe that DeSanctis’s dismissive comment was directed at The Classic and its staff. The newspaper, led by Editor-in-Chief Sumaita Hasan and Managing Editor Mehrose Ahmed, has stated that it is incredibly insulted by this accusation of spreading made-up or fictitious journalistic material.
In a professionally written letter to the city mayor, the chancellor of NYC schools, and the superintendent, Hasan and Mehrose cite many allegations towards the principal that are hyperlinked to various sources offering proof of what they have written about in The Classic. These citations include links to audio recordings of Jahoda, as well as information about a visually impaired Bronx Science alumna who claims Jahoda withheld mandated services from her. The proof these two powerful girls provide seems overwhelmingly convincing.
When asked about these allegations, Mehrose has responded, “It’s troubling because the Department of Education is dismissing, disparaging, and belittling our work that is being recognized by people from the THHS community as well as local and citywide media outlets. By calling The Classic ‘fake news,’ the DOE is attempting to weaken our credibility.”
These accusations are especially disconcerting because of Townsend Harris’ reputation of emphasising the importance of writing and journalism. Many schools aggressively censor student journalists, but Townsend Harris has famously protected the constitutional rights of the staff at The Classic for over 30 years with its free press charter. If it were not for the women leading The Classic, the harmful actions of Jahoda may have gone unreported.
At the end of their letter, Hasan and Mehrose say, “We think that our accomplishments as two female high school journalists who come from Muslim backgrounds are what really defines the essence of America.” This could not be more true. These women should be proud of their courageous efforts to make their school a safer and more supportive place, despite the obstacles they face.
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