NAHJ Student Project participants unfazed by misconduct investigation

Jackeline Lizama paused before signing her name on a contract prohibiting relationships — romantic or sexual — between students and mentors, and wondered what could have happened to require such a formal commitment.

“There was obviously a reason we had to sign a form,” said Lizama, 21, a student participant in the 2019 NAHJ Student Project. “I was just like, ‘What happened in the past that we have to sign this now?’ ”

For the past two years, students and mentors in NAHJ programs have been required to sign a two-page contract barring fraternization after allegations of sexual misconduct were raised ahead of the 2018 national conference.

NAHJ President Brandon Benavides, left, stands next to board members Javier Palmeira, Blanca Rios, and Laura Casta–eda during the General Membership Meeting at the 2018 NAHJ Conference Miami, Fla., on Saturday, July 21, 2018. Palmeira, Rios and Casta–eda were appointed by the board to investigate allegations of misconduct dating back nearly a decade. (LATINO REPORTER/MARIE D. DE JESUS)

The complaint that launched NAHJ’s probe involved a mentor-mentee relationship during the 2010 Student Project. The two were disciplined by Project leadership at the time. Since then, other allegations have been brought to the NAHJ board, which voted Friday to move forward without disciplinary action against any members.

Lizama, a recent graduate of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, had heard about the allegations, but said last month that it hadn’t changed her views on the organization or the Student Project.

“I didn’t really think much about it,” Lizama said. “Which maybe I should be thinking more into it, because, you know, part of journalism is don’t just shrug it off.” 

Lizama is one of 12 student journalists participating in the 2019 Student Project at the NAHJ Excellence in Journalism conference in San Antonio. There are six mentors participating in the program. All 18 were required to sign the no-fraternization agreement.

“In order to avoid potential conflicts of interest, favoritism, exploitations, harassment or breaches of professional standards, NAHJ prohibits romantic or sexual relationships between NAHJ mentors and students during student workshops,” the policy reads. “No NAHJ mentor shall pursue, have or maintain a romantic or sexual relationship with any student or, likewise, no student shall pursue have or maintain a romantic or sexual relationship with any NAHJ mentor during a student workshop.”

The Latino Reporter reached out to about 20 Student Project participants from this year and last. Most said they were not aware of the details of the misconduct investigation but added that it did not cause them to lose faith in NAHJ. Several said they would like to see more transparency from the organization, which has not yet released details of the investigation, which was completed on Friday. 

[Read more: NAHJ will not discipline members accused of sexual misconduct following year-long investigation]

Juan Herrera, a 23-year-old graduate from the University of Maryland, participated in the 2018 Student Project and said he was surprised to learn about the investigation during last year’s conference. 

“I wasn’t expecting there to be that kind of issue around the organization,” Herrera said. “And certainly, from having participated, I wouldn’t have gotten the notion that that kind of thing is going on.”

The news of the investigation didn’t change his views on the organization as a whole.

Karina Gonzalez, 22, who also participated in last year’s project, said she remembered the investigation into past relationships between mentors and students being a topic of conversation in The Latino Reporter newsroom, but couldn’t recall details. 

NAHJ has not released details on who or what has been investigated. President Hugo Balta said Thursday that a summary of the organization’s findings and recommendations will be released to members within the next four weeks.

“I feel like it was kept pretty hush-hush with the board,” said Gonzalez, a graduate of the University of Nevada-Reno. “I don’t really know how many people actually know about it.”

Abigail Arredondo, 21, a 2019 Student Project participant, said she reading about the investigation didn’t change her view of the program — or discourage her from attending.

“When I read it, obviously it’s shocking and a little disappointing, as far as the mentors, who it’s their responsibility to kind of guide these students,” Arredondo said. 

She added that it should have been common sense for students and mentors to not engage in any romantic or sexual relationships. 

“It is a conference, these are professionals,” Arredondo said. “And so I don’t think that would be appropriate in any case.”

Christian Galeno, 24, a graduate of Cal State Long Beach, said the controversy loomed over the conference last year — but it didn’t hinder his enjoyment. 

“Just because there were a couple of bad apples that were in that batch, that doesn’t mean that the entire mentors been should get affected by it or should be labeled as potentially able to do that,” Galeno said, adding that for him, NAHJ was a place to build a community.

“Unfortunately, it’s one of those things where people are going to look back, and they’re going to probably talk about it,” Galeno said. “But I still feel that it’s not going to deteriorate the mission of the student project, or of what it actually does, or the benefits that it actually has for journalists of color.”

Karina Elwood is a 2019 NAHJ Student Project participant. She is a junior at the University of Florida majoring in journalism. She is the features editor at the Independent Florida Alligator and spent her summer interning at the Orlando Sentinel justice and safety desk. Reach her at karina.elwood@ufl.edu and on Twitter at@Karina_Elwood.

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