We live in a time when an accusation of wrongdoing can spread widely and quickly. And a time when the remnants of an accusation—whether it ultimately is judged to be true or false—can live on in a pseudo-permanent state online.
A notable local lawsuit will soon deal with the issue of how careful people need to be in making sure that their public accusations offer an accurate depiction of what happened. The suit stems from an incident that made national—and even international—news last summer. This headline from CBS News was typical of how most outlets summarized the incident: “Principal refuses to allow first black valedictorian to give speech, so Rochester mayor intervenes.”
That valedictorian was Jaisaan Lovett, and he had just graduated from the University Preparatory Charter School for Young Men (UPrep). Joseph Munno was the principal of that charter school. Munno had a long history in Rochester education circles. He had graduated from Rochester schools himself before embarking on a 37-year career in the Rochester City School District. He rose to become principal of John Marshall High School before retiring from RCSD in 2007. Munno then came out of retirement in 2010 to found and lead the all-boys charter school.
By all outside measures, UPrep was doing good work. In February 2018, its state authorizer—the SUNY Charter Schools Institute—issued a highly positive report recommending that the school be renewed for another charter term. The report indicated that about 79 percent of UPrep students are African American, with another 12 percent being Hispanic. Also, 97.7 percent of UPrep students qualified for free lunches based on their family’s economic circumstances.
Despite the socioeconomic challenges faced by its student body, the report noted that UPrep “has posted four-year graduation rates exceeding 92% for all three years in the Accountability Period,” with “77% of the most recent graduating class currently enrolled at a college or university.” These numbers are in stark contrast to graduation and college readiness numbers achieved by the RCSD. As noted in the state report: “UPrep Young Men is relentless in ensuring its students graduate its program rather than drop out from high school.”
Lovett himself has indicated that he does not believe that his issues with Munno are related to racism, saying: “I know we have our disagreements but I wouldn’t go so far as to say it was a racial thing.”
In an interview with local radio station WDKX shortly after the incident, Munno indicated that Lovett had told a member of the school’s leadership that he did not wish to give a valedictorian speech, and only changed his mind “10 minutes before the graduation was going to start,” when it was too late to let Lovett speak. Munno also indicated how hurt he was at the numerous accusations that he was a racist. “It was only two years ago that the mayor was the keynote speaker at my graduation,” he said, further stating that “I don’t deserve that. I’ve dedicated my whole life to this community—46 years I’ve been working with students in the city.”
The lawsuit, filed by Munno last week against the City of Rochester and Mayor Lovely Warren personally, alleges that the mayor’s “actions were politically motivated convoluting a situation so she could utilize the ugliness of race baiting to grab international media attention.”
After Lovett was not able to speak at the UPrep graduation, Warren let him give his speech at City Hall and posted it on the city’s YouTube channel. In her introduction of Lovett, the mayor said: “For some reason, his school—in a country where freedom of speech is a constitutional right, and the city of Frederick Douglass—turned his moment of triumph into a time of sorrow and pain.”
Later in the video (see beginning 4:47), Lovett says: “To Mr. Munno, my principal, it’s a whole lot of things that I wanted to say to you for a long time. As a matter of fact, I wasn’t going to give this speech at all. … And I’m here as the UPrep 2018 valedictorian to tell you that you couldn’t break me.” That middle part of the quote—that Lovett “wasn’t going to give this speech at all”—may be evidence corroborating that Lovett really had told UPrep officials that he wasn’t planning to give a speech.
After Warren let Lovett give his speech at City Hall, the story (predictably) went viral. Soon after, Munno resigned from the charter school he had founded (though he now states that he was forced to resign over the racially-tinged controversy).
Should Warren and her colleagues have investigated the situation more thoroughly before giving Lovett a platform and consequently damaging the reputation of both Munno and UPrep? Should Munno’s 46 years of service as a seemingly successful local educator have bought him some benefit of the doubt—or at least some caution—from the mayor?
A local jury may soon determine the answers. And in this age of social media and daily scandals, it is especially important to get these answers right.