Getting High: Good News, and Bad News
It all started with some funny brownies.
Understand that I mean funny as in odd, not funny as in ha ha. The recipe called for cannabis and on that morning last October a sophomore at Harvard-Westlake School decided she couldn’t eat just one. She consumed three before classes began that day and the effects didn’t hit until later. She collapsed in the school library and was transported to North Hollywood Medical Center, detoxing within a few hours. Later she was expelled.
Students at the Harvard-Westlake Chronicle could smell a bigger story. Noah Strote, the Chronicle’s executive editor, went to work, and when the November issue came out, students, staff, parents were drawn to the story understatedly placed on a corner of Page 1:
Drugs used on campus
This was a bad news, good news story.
It is bad for obvious reasons, though nobody should be shocked that teenagers are curious about the forbidden. Nor should it shock that a tony private school would be somehow exempt from such concerns.
The good news is that the Chronicle boldly covered such an important story and documented it so well. Strote’s report was built on a poll of about half the sophomores, juniors and seniors. Among those 372 students, 26 said they had used drugs on campus. Perhaps more alarmingly, one in five students said they had been offered drugs at school. Strote also interviewed two drug users who described their activities and administrators who professed disbelief that so many students would risk expulsion.
All of which is why Noah Strote, an 18-year-old Calabasas resident bound for Columbia University, was among 12 individual students--and two newspaper staffs--honored last week in a high school journalism competition sponsored by The Times’ Valley and Ventura County Editions.
Strote won for best news story, beating some pretty tough competition. I know because I judged that category.
Judging such contests is both a pleasure and pain.
It’s a pleasure because it’s a reminder that, to borrow an aphorism coined by a 50-something friend: “All life is high school.” Those campuses are such an apt microcosm for life--the social life, the cliques, the authority figures. You know how college students refer to adulthood as “the real world”? Funny, but the real world is a lot more like high school than college.
Maybe it was all just a matter of hormones, but my high school memories are richly detailed, while college is more of a blur. For this former high school newspaper editor, reading these stories is a sentimental journey.
But it’s a pain because you ultimately can’t honor every story that deserves it. Rules permitted only one honorable mention, and I was torn between two.
In the end, honorable mention went to Nathan Baca of the Ventura High Cougar for a report on alleged improprieties in student elections. (Talk about all life is high school.) Facing a tight deadline, Baca reported charges of “vote coaching” at ballot booths, an alleged violation of the student election code.
Baca not only got both sides of the story, but he disclosed that the school’s student government advisor had denied the newspaper access to the actual vote count. Always nice to see the press safeguarding the democratic process--even in student council elections.
The fact that allegations arose “just prior to deadline” gave Baca the nod over two Van Nuys High students. I would hereby like to extend congratulations to Nabeela Chaudry and Elizabeth Chavis for their report about dubious truancy enforcement.
As Chaudry and Chavis reported, several students had complained that LAPD officers had issued truancy citations as they were arriving late to school with valid excuses. Their story noted how an appeal from Principal Russ Thompson to a Van Nuys Division supervisor prompted police to alter their enforcement policy to focus on genuine truants and not students arriving late to campus.
It’s also heartening to see such promise among teenage media types, because lately too many grown-ups have betrayed the public’s trust. Writers for The New Republic and Boston Globe were found to be passing fiction off as fact, and CNN and Time recently retracted a sensational story claiming U.S. forces in Vietnam used poison gas on deserters. It should be noted that producers fired by CNN adamantly stand by their story--more evidence that “truth” can be a contentious concept.
I asked Noah Strote how he felt about the rash of scandals and, of course, he was dismayed: “It doesn’t give people much faith in the future of journalism.”
He said he isn’t sure what studies he’ll pursue at Columbia, but here’s hoping that he’ll give journalism a fair chance. And that goes for Margarita Peralta, editor-in-chief of San Fernando High’s award-winning El Tigre, as she heads off for UC Berkeley. That goes, in fact, for not only the winners of this contest, but all those unnamed runners-up.
And here’s hoping, also, that a certain brownie-eating girl who was expelled from Harvard-Westlake lives up to her words.
Interviewed, anonymously, by reporter Shonu Gandhi for a sidebar that appeared with Strote’s story, the girl described how, sitting in the library during third period, she felt her heart beat rapidly and was overwhelmed by a burning sensation. She had little recollection of other events that day.
“I think I deserve [expulsion] because I could have hurt other people,” she said. “I’m seen as a threat because I brought drugs to school and gave them to other people. It was something they had to do.
“I’m never going to do drugs again.”
Scott Harris’ column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. Readers may write to him at The Times’ Valley Edition, 20000 Prairie St., Chatsworth 91311, or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please include a phone number.