New Orleans — The John McDonogh Advisory Committee, a panel of community members that advises the charter operator for the high school, made its feelings about the reality show “Blackboard Wars’’ clear at Tuesday’s monthly meeting.
The committee passed around an open letter calling the show, produced the Oprah Winfrey Network, “a source of negative, exploitative depictions of the students and the school.”
The advisory board’s letter was addressed to New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, Winfrey, the show’s producers and charter operator Steve Barr.
Three out of six episodes of the hourlong show have aired to date. The first begins with images from a 2003 shooting in the school’s gymnasium but never mentions that the incident, which left one student dead, occurred a decade ago.
Nearly every student featured in the first three episodes faces some sort of challenge—from teen pregnancy and homelessness to bipolar disorder and lack of parental acceptance because of homosexuality. Every episode aired thus far has shown scenes of out-of-control classrooms and students fighting inside the school.
Angelina Elder, the parent of a senior at McDonogh, said that when she and her daughter agreed to appear on the show, they were misled about how the school and students would be depicted. Elder said she was given the impression it would show the students in a positive light. In addition, when Elder signed the consent form, the proposed name of the show was “Treme High.”
“If they had said anything with ‘war’ in it, I wouldn’t have signed,” Elder said.
Elder, who said she was “put out” of Tuesday’s meeting by McDonogh Principal Marvin Thompson, spent the duration outside the school while her daughter attended. Elder herself became a topic of the meeting as parents and other community members questioned the right to free speech and why she was not allowed in.
Thompson said it was because “she made it clear to me her goal is to have students stop coming to the school” and that students had complained about her talking to them out front.
Elder said Wednesday that she had stood on the sidewalk in front of the school and encouraged students to fill out applications and consider going to a different school next year.
Numerous people told Thompson that Elder, whom they described as having been a big part of volunteering at and advocating for school in past years, should have been allowed to attend.
Thompson said he understood the anger and frustration, but that he also was human — and resented comments such as him being “used by the white man.” Whether good or bad, Thompson also said, the attention brought by the show had the potential to garner support and galvanize change at the school.
In an interview last month, Thompson blamed the contentious “most dangerous” label on Landrieu, who said in his 2012 State of the City Address that in 2011, a McDonogh student was more likely to killed than a soldier in Afghanistan.
“We thank Mitch Landrieu for visiting John McDonogh High School on Monday, February 25 to speak with students about the statement he made,’’ the advisory committee’s letter said. “We respectfully hope that the mayor, Steve Barr, and those responsible for publicity for Blackboard Wars will stop repeating this anomalous statistic that stigmatizes the current students of John McDonogh.”
The letter points to words like “most dangerous,” “most under-performing,” and “worst,” saying that such “blanket statements stereotype our school and our students,” and “reinforce low expectations.”
“Students who are repeatedly told that they are violent, troubled and beyond redemption will soon come to believe it . . . this rhetoric drives away families and students who believe the exaggerations and lies about John McDonogh,” the letter said.
A spokesman for the network said Wednesday that those words were no longer being used in episodes or in on-air promos.
The letter also seeks to correct other statements made by Barr and requests that he “stop making exaggerated claims about how poor the school was in the past to inflate themselves and their cause.”
In a January interview about the show in California, Barr stated that out of 261 students enrolled during the 2011-2012 school year, “Any given day you never saw more than 60 kids at the school.” According to the New Orleans Parents’ Guide to Public Schools, McDonogh’s attendance rate that year was 89 percent.
Elder said that from her own visits to the school, as well as her daughter’s reports, many students are not attending, largely because of the strict rules, including pat-downs for every student when they enter and dogs being brought in to sniff backpacks.
“My daughter said she felt like she was violated,” Elder said, of the pat-downs.
She said that in previous years they never had so many security guards or disciplinarians, and that the kids now call the school the “House of Detention” and refer to the floors as “tiers.”
At the meeting, “Coach” Frank Buckley asked what happened to $35 million designated for the dilapidated building. Barr responded that the Recovery School District controls the money, and while he has asked for some upfront for repairs, he was told the money was tied to the redesign of the historic building. Any construction is about two years away, Barr said.
A former teacher asked whether the show’s discussion of the student with bipolar disorder was in violation of federal privacy laws. Thompson said no, and that it was addressed in the signed release.
Thompson added that the network had been solicited to provide psychiatric services to students and families.
Barr defended the show and noted that the school has additional challenges in part because it takes in students that other charter schools “put out.” He said about 40 percent of the student body has special education needs.
Barr said that he thinks when people watch the show with fresh eyes, they see “beautiful and brilliant” students who are bravely overcoming the odds.
Clarence Robinson, the advisory board’s chairman, said he sees no intrinsic value in the show and doesn’t think it serves students.
“If you asked me personally, I wish the show would go away,” Robinson said. “We spend way too much time on the show and not enough time on educating the kids.”