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Activism 101: Joe Zefran's high school education

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Over the years Lane Tech High School has produced outstanding athletes and high-scoring academics but few, if any, social activists. For better or worse, it's just not the kind of school that breeds outspokenness; at Lane, when a kid steps out of line for whatever cause, the principal usually pushes him back in. "Around here they don't like people who speak out--they call you an enemy of Lane," says Jim Parker, a member of Lane's local school council. "Nobody wants to shake the boat."

Except, that is, for Joe Zefran, a 17-year-old senior who in the last month has taken a leading role in not one but two school protest movements. If there were such a thing as a high school all-star team for dissent, Zefran would be first-string.

"I like Lane--they've got some great teachers--but that doesn't mean I'm gonna take all the crap the administration dishes," says Zefran. "I don't want to walk around life with my eyes closed and my mouth shut."

For his first three years at Lane, Zefran was not a figure of controversy. He spent much of his free time listening to the radio, deejaying parties, and attending youth club meetings at his church. "I didn't know Joe until recently," says assistant principal Keith Foley. "That's a good sign. He's not a kid who got in trouble."

It was the practical matter of filthy bathrooms--long a source of shame at Lane--that forced Zefran to speak out. Many bathrooms reek of urine because the urinals don't flush and the toilets are flooded; there's no privacy because the stalls have no doors; and needless to say, walls and mirrors are streaked with graffiti. Earlier this school year somebody--not Zefran--circulated a petition that hundreds of students signed, pleading that the bathrooms be cleaned. Principal David Schlichting (who wouldn't comment for this story) responded by calling for patience.

"Schlichting said the problem was we were short on custodial staff," says William Rankin, another LSC member. "That's no excuse. We have 21 janitors here; we spend a million dollars a year in janitorial salaries. And we don't even have toilet paper in some bathrooms. That's inexcusable."

In February the Sun-Times and Channel Two got wind of the situation and ran stories about the bathrooms, though their coverage was limited because Schlichting wouldn't let cameras or reporters into the bathrooms. That's when Zefran decided to attack. "I thought it was terrible to keep the cameras out, like they wanted to hide a problem rather than solve it," he says. "I called Channel Two and said, "Do you want footage of Lane's bathrooms?' They got real excited."

Using a camera borrowed from Lane's video department, Zefran shot videotape of the bathrooms. "I took shots of holes in the walls and holes in the ceiling and of toilets flooding. It was too bad they didn't have smell-a-vision, 'cause the smell in some of those bathrooms was so disgusting it could make you vomit."

That night Channel Two aired what is now known as the Zefran footage. "Lester Holt introduced it saying, 'Here we have home video shot by some kids at Lane Tech,' says Zefran. "I thought, "Wait a minute. Some kids didn't shoot that stuff. I shot it. I told Channel Two they could use my name. I wanted them to use my name. This administration has an uncanny ability to shut up parents and teachers and students. If a person speaks up, they get on his case. They try to intimidate you. And I just wanted them to know that I was willing to stand up for what was right."

The next day Zefran confessed. "Schlichting wasn't happy," he says. "He was with another LSC member and they seemed insulted. He said 'Thanks, Joe,' really sarcastically. Then the other guy let me have it good. He said this is bad publicity, and that my timing couldn't be worse, what with prospective freshmen coming around to look at the school. He said I was making the school look bad. Schlichting took me to his office and talked to me for 50 minutes. He told me how tough it is to run a school, and he concluded by saying, 'Don't go behind my back again.'"

Embarrassed by the coverage, a group of parents, students, and teachers volunteered to clean the bathrooms themselves. "This is only a temporary solution, but we feel we have to do something," says Rankin. "It's our 'adopt-a-bathroom' program. At least once a week we go into the bathrooms and mop the floors and try to clean up the graffiti. The chief engineer said he couldn't get the smells out because they're in the tile. But I mopped the floor of my adopted bathroom and the smell was gone."

Just as protests over the bathrooms were dying down, a second controversy erupted--this one involving a kiss. "The French Club was planning something a little outrageous for International Days, which is this big thing where all the ethnic clubs set up booths and do skits," says Zefran. "Rumor had it that they were going to have a skit where two girls kissed."

When word of the proposed skit made its way to the office, Foley and Schlichting called the French Club in for a meeting. "I told them this is International Days--this is not a time for political or social statements," says Foley. "We have certain rules we have to abide by." Foley says he and Schlichting told the students there was to be no kissing or any kind of sexual behavior onstage. "I told them that there would be severe consequences if they violated this rule: a ten-day out-of-school suspension and they couldn't participate in graduation or prom. I felt the consequences should be severe because this would be a gross disobedience of a very clearly stated rule."

The version Zefran, who didn't attend the original meeting, heard from French Club members was a little different. "I heard from some kids that Schlichting and Foley said it would be OK for a boy to kiss a girl, but that they wouldn't let two girls kiss," he says. "I thought, 'This sucks; this is homophobia.' So I went to Schlichting's office and I said, 'I heard about the French Club.' He said, 'It's inappropriate to have two girls kissing.' I said, 'Wait a minute, some parents think interracial couples are inappropriate.' He said that maybe in 25 years this wouldn't be that big of a deal, but it is now. He said, 'Listen, I've got to do what I think is right for the school. This is why they're paying me--to make these decisions.' That made me sick. He was using his power to force his views on the school."

Zefran decided to organize a student protest, which was no easy task. "It's not like all the students are in one place where I could tell them what was going on, and I don't have access to the school loudspeaker. Plus, there are so many cliques you have to work around. You have the jocks, who play sports, and the headbangers, who love heavy metal and Beavis and Butt-head, and the trendies, who wear clothes from the Gap, and the Danbros, who are techno kids, which means they listen to fast-dance, beat music, and play video games. I'm not sure why they're called Danbros, though they do say "bro' a lot. And the Tree People, and the ROTC crowd, and the--"

The Tree People?

"Yeah, they're like punk rockers. They wear black lipstick and listen to alternative music and smoke cigarettes and like to hang out by the big tree on the front lawn. I'm not really in any of these groups.

"Anyway, I'd stop kids in the hall and say, 'Did you hear about the French Club?' Most of them hadn't. Some said it was inappropriate to have two girls kiss, some said they didn't care. Most thought it was hypocritical to let a boy and girl kiss but not two girls."

The protest was scheduled for March 18 after school, and about 40 students showed up, as well as a crew from Channel 32. (Zefran called all the TV stations.) "We started marching and chanting things like 'Hey, hey, ho, ho, all this hate has got to go.' We sang Bob Marley's song "Stand Up for Your Rights." The reporter from Channel 32 interviewed me, and that was about it."

In the aftermath Foley asked to meet with Zefran and the French Club. "I told them that there had been some disinformation," says Foley. "I told them that the general policy was against any kind of kissing, be it homosexual or heterosexual."

The administration issued a press release, reaffirming its "right to modify a skit which may be even remotely construed as unkind or in poor taste." Student council president Isela Morales went over the loudspeaker to say that the purpose of the International Days festival is to show pride in Lane's ethnic diversity and "not to expound on political or social issues." And the French Club decided to drop kissing from its skit.

As for Zefran, he's been the recipient of both criticism and praise. The other day, for instance, he was recognized by an admiring Tree Person, who complimented him for his handling of the protest. "I really liked that 'ho, ho, ho' chant," she said.

Zefran says he'd like a career in the media, maybe as a disc jockey. "A lot of faculty have thanked me for what I did," he says. "One [staffer] said, "When you graduate I'll give you more dirt on Lane.' If it's a Hard Copy type of personal scandal, I don't want it. But if it's about abuse of power, I've got to make it right."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.

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