What's Really Going On At Urbana High?

Mar 8, 2019

Michael Tessene
Credit Dusty Rhodes / NPR Illinois

Urbana school district has been in the news a lot lately for all the wrong reasons — on campus fights. Most publicity has pointed to the district's implementation of a new restorative justice discipline policy, along with a shuffle of administrative personnel, as the causes of the uptick in school violence.

But over the weekend, Urbana’s high schools newspaper The Echo pushed back against that popular narrative in an editorial titled Racism at the Root of Recent Urbana High School Coverage.

Michael Tessene, a junior, took on the editorial board of the Champaign News-Gazette. His post got dozens of comments on The Echo’s website, and countless more on social media platforms. Most praised his sentiments; many also encouraged him to pursue a career in journalism.



What motivated his editorial:

“I wrote the article just to because I read the news because that article and it really, like, I was just very angry it was just like they're, you know, like attacking a school and a district in like a way that's completely decoupled from reality.

Because there are legitimate criticisms of the school district. And I've been one of the people trying to lead those. I think there are so many things that this district can do better. But just it doesn't go far enough with restorative justice... And I think that is one of their one of their major failings right now. And the fact that the News-Gazette — for the purpose of their agenda and their readership, and their racism — is choosing to attack the district for being too restorative just pissed me off, and that's why I wrote it.”

On the February 4, 2019 fight that was the topic of the News-Gazette editorial:

“From what I know of what happened, there were a few kids who decided to get into a fight and in that instance, that particular fight was deliberate with a few of the kids…. Like, many of them didn't typically come to school, and then they were like showing up in homeroom that day. It eventually kind of spiraled into like up to 50 is the largest number I've heard, 20 is the lower bound. And there was a teacher who decided to get involved and she … was shoved, like unintentionally, and she fell into the lockers, and she started bleeding. She had to go to the hospital because she was unconscious.

“There was a parent of one of the kids was there and was refusing to leave, so she was also arrested along with the seven kids. Who's that helping? They just lost their lives, basically. Like they're probably not gonna be able to like get back into the world and succeed as much as they could have if someone had intervened.”

Student reaction to the fight:

“I can’t speak for everyone, obviously, because I wasn’t personally involved. I was in the choir room, just practicing music. And I didn't hear about it, except there were like a bunch of people going by, and like kids being ushered out. And so I'm like, able to not really be worried about it. And, you know, part of that is just me being like an upper middle-class white kid in mostly AP classes, But I'm sure other students are certainly a lot more scared than I am.”

Where did the problems begin?

“The first that I think is general public knowledge is over the summer, there was a 14-year-old student who was shot and paralyzed, and it's kind of been just retaliations as a result of that since then….

“There was a lot of administrative transition. The principal left the beginning of this year, which was the biggest thing. He was very popular among the students and he was like, present all the time, and he was able to communicate in a way that felt very genuine. And that relationship that students had with him is gone.”


What does he want people to know about UHS?

“It's really just a school. I feel I feel like there's been this idea that there was some, like, monumental... just like society collapsed in Urbana. That didn't happen. It's like ... I think it's a very average school, and I mean that in the best way possible, you know? I love this school and the people in it and, yeah, I like all complain about the things that that have been going wrong in the school. But a vast majority of the time, the air, I guess, the the atmosphere in the school is just like these are people who really care about each other, and care about the world, and want the best for each other and the world. And that's ... that doesn't sell, you know. So you never get that.”

Career ambitions:

“I'm going to go into music composition, which doesn't really seem at all pertinent to this, but that's really what I've been set on for a long time, and it's one of the probably the thing that I'm best at. And I'm passionate about it. I also might double major in city planning.



"Honestly, the reason I ended up in in journalism and journalism classes is because I didn't want to have two study halls. That seemed like such a waste. So I thought like, okay, journalism could be interesting. So I tried it, and it's like, I've been interested in activism for a while, and this is really just a conduit for that. As for journalism itself, I haven't really thought of as a career, which I'm sorry about that. But it's really more of more of a means to an end for the things that I want to improve about the world and our community."

We reached out to a News-Gazette editorial writer to see whether he had any response to Tessene’s editorial. He repliedd: "I do not."