Highland Park High officials say canceling Ariz. trip 'not political'
May 13, 2010 10:10 PM
From Sarah Palin and Rush Limbaugh to Whoopi Goldberg, national attention focused on the decision to keep the Highland Park High School girls basketball team out of an Arizona tournament because of that state's controversial crackdown on illegal immigrants.
Talk shows and bloggers across the country jumped on the story Thursday, with Limbaugh telling listeners, "You have a bunch of childish, immature, liberal little adults running this school who care more about what people think of them and what they think of each other than they do about any kid anywhere."
District 113 administrators hunkered down, refusing to address the firestorm of debate -- except through e-mail statements about why they canceled the trip.
"We cannot commit at this time to playing at a venue where some of our students' safety or liberty might be placed at risk because of state immigration law," Superintendent George Fornero said in a letter to parents.
Board members also did not return calls and e-mails seeking their input on the burgeoning controversy that put the school under the national spotlight.
"Since undocumented students may be participating on any of our extracurricular teams, we need to ensure that all of our students can travel safely, especially in the United States," Suzan Hebson, the assistant superintendent, said Thursday in an e-mail to the Tribune.
Earlier this week, Hebson said she did not know if anyone associated with this year's team is undocumented. The district does not yet know the make-up of its varsity team next fall.
Parents and players said they knew of no one currently on the team who was in the country illegally.
Coming off their best season in 26 years, players have been raising money to attend the tournament next season in Scottsdale, Ariz., which is scheduled for late December.
But last week an executive team made up of Fornero, Hebson and other administrators rejected the basketball team's request. Coach Jolie Bechtel broke the news to her players on Monday.
Fornero and Hebson on Thursday backed away from any suggestion that the decision was a political protest, despite Hebson's comment to the Tribune on Tuesday that the trip "would not be aligned with our beliefs and values."
"District 113's decisions regarding travel of its students in regard to extracurricular activities is never `political,'" Hebson said in her follow-up e-mail.
Meanwhile, former vice presidential candidate Palin was making the media rounds, following up on her criticism of school district officials during an appearance in Rosemont on Wednesday evening.
"An economic and political boycott of one of our sister states is not a way to secure our borders," Palin told the Rosemont audience, urging the players to, "go rogue, girls."
"They're using their own kids to advance a fraudulent, phony agenda," Limbaugh told his radio audience, according to a transcript on his Web site. "So here you have a bunch of liberals that run this school who are no different than your garden variety liberals anywhere else."
For Michael Evans, father of basketball player Lauren Evans, the political bickering now swirling around the canceled trip is exactly what parents did not want to happen.
"I've gotten calls from (Sean) Hannity and (Greta) Van Susteren," Evans said, referring to Fox News commentators. "I heard Whoopi Goldberg talking about it on The View this morning."
"Shouldn't they have had this conversation with the parents first before they just canceled it?" Goldberg said on the show. "It would behoove the folks, those parents who are upset, to get to their school and say you cannot make these decisions without talking to us and at least allowing us to talk to our children. Because they did all this work and you (school officials) made the decision."
But Evans says he isn't looking for support from celebrities or pundits.
"What I don't want to do is politicize one way or another this tournament," the parent said. "That's what I was upset about: It was politicized (by school district administrators). Just let them play basketball."
Administrators say they are seeking another out-of-state tournament for the team to play in next season.
But now it's gone beyond basketball in Highland Park, an upscale North Shore community that includes the heavily Hispanic town of Highwood in its educational district. If the national discourse is intense, the debate locally has been equally energetic.
As students flowed from the high school on Thursday afternoon, they were greeted by reporters, photographers and a TV satellite truck from the national Fox News as it prepared for a live broadcast.
"I feel bad for the girls," said Evan Deahl, 17, a junior. "They worked hard to get all the funds together to go on this trip. But on the other hand we need to show support for our community. Many people don't know that Highwood feeds into our community and that Highwood has a high proportion of Latino students."
Jessie Rooth, 17, a junior, said she's in the band, which went to China last year.
"I don't think the team should be stopped from going to Arizona seeing as how we were allowed to go to China," Rooth said. "There are issues in China with communism. Before we left we talked about certain things and how we couldn't act certain ways. Arizona has its issues, and there shouldn't be a correlation between the kids not being able to go just because of the laws in Arizona."
Marissa Medansky, 17, a junior, applauded the administrators' decision.
"We have a very diverse student population, and it's our responsibility to protect everyone who goes to this school regardless of their race, regardless of their documentation status," she said.
"I think the media attention is unfortunate," she added. "I think the district did a brave thing, and it's horrible how it's being misconstrued by all these media outlets. There are two sides to the story, and they're only choosing to tell one side of the story, that the team can't go."
Highland Park resident Neil Codell, whose daughter attends the high school, questioned the decision to cancel the trip and the superintendent's refusal to speak publicly about it.
Codell, former superintendent for Niles Township High School District 219, called the trip a "teachable moment" in which the basketball team could talk to Arizona residents about their new law and its ramifications.
"I don't see the imminent danger in Arizona except for the fact that it is a state that has embarrassed itself, not only by being the last to adopt the (Martin Luther) King holiday but ... this in-your-face attitude that further alienates people," Codell said.
Joe Peddle lives in Highland Park and graduated from the high school in 1979.
"They should not politicize the school," Peddle said. "This is not a place for it."
Brian Cox contributed to this report.
--Jeff Long and Lisa Black
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