NAHJ board appoints three of its own members to investigate allegations of misconduct after years of inaction

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)

Before the UNITY convention in 2012, David Plazas emailed a code of conduct to seven NAHJ students who would be participating in that year’s project.

No tolerance for drugs or alcohol, it said. And no tolerance for fraternizing.

“You are there to work,” wrote Plazas, then co-leader of the project.

The code of conduct, a copy of which was provided to The Latino Reporter by Plazas, was prompted by behavior at earlier conventions, according to the email. Plazas wrote that students and staff had been kicked out of previous events “for inappropriate fraternization.”

Plazas has shared the email with the NAHJ committee now investigating allegations of misconduct, he said in a phone call Friday. NAHJ told its members of the investigation on June 22. Earlier this week, the board announced it had adopted its own no-fraternization policy for the organization and asked students and mentors to sign it before the convention began on Wednesday. The policy applies to all activities and events involving students.

The 2012 email came after conversations about the need for a written policy, Plazas said.

Javier Palmera, one of three board members on the special committee formed to investigate allegations of misconduct, said in an interview Friday that the investigation was opened after someone reported an incident. He said he couldn’t specify details.

“There were accusations made, and we don’t know the validity of the accusations,” said Palmera.

Palmera said he couldn’t confirm if the Student Project is part of the investigation or who might be the focus of it. He said the committee has spoken with “various” people in the days since it started investigating and there are “various” others it wants to speak with.

“The list changes,” he said.

Palmera also said there is no set timetable for completing the investigation.

The other two investigators are Laura Castañeda, the NAHJ national academic officer, and Blanca Rios, the director for NAHJ’s Region 6, which is based in Chicago.

NAHJ board members Javier Palmeria (left), Blanca Rios (center) and Laura Castañeda (right) during the General Membership Meeting at the 2018 NAHJ Conference Miami, Fla., on Saturday, July 21, 2018. The three were appointed by the NAHJ board to investigate claims of misconduct within the organization dating back nearly a decade. (LATINO REPORTER/MARIE D. DE JESUS)

At an emergency meeting on June 28, the board instructed the three to report any findings “to the board and the following individuals: Brandon Benavides, Joe Ruiz, Maria Peña, Michelle Rindels, Nancy Flores, Miguel Rosa and Daniela Ibarra provided that each individual sign a non-disclosure agreement.”

Several of the named board members will be stepping down from their positions on Sunday as their two-year terms end. A new board will then convene.

Hundreds of college students have worked on the Student Project and other NAHJ development programs over the last 30 years.

The Latino Reporter contacted nearly 40 students and mentors to discuss their experiences. About a dozen responded. Several said they didn’t recall anything inappropriate.

Monica Rhor, who has been a mentor in the Student Project for more than 10 years, said no student has ever complained to her about sexual misconduct. She acknowledged that she and former board member Russell Contreras traded messages in August 2011 about partying between mentors and students. That year’s convention was in Orlando in June.

Rhor said there may have been follow-up conversations but doesn’t remember specifics. She said she was contacted by investigators Friday afternoon and that she plans to cooperate.

Carlos Avila Gonzalez, who has been a mentor every year since 2009, said he recalls a situation in 2010, during the convention in Denver, with a mentor and student “getting too physical” and that the situation was quickly dealt with. Someone was sent home, he said.

He said the Student Project has been a positive experience for many students. Several have returned as mentors.

“If this was a hostile environment, you wouldn’t see that happening,” Gonzalez said. He had not been contacted by investigators as of Saturday morning, he said.

All six of the current mentors of the Student Project sent a letter to NAHJ’s leadership on June 22 encouraging transparency.

“If an investigation turns up evidence of misconduct, we must investigate and review such incidents thoroughly and make sure that any mentor involved is not allowed to participate in the project again and not allowed to be on a leadership position in NAHJ, as well as ensuring that anyone who was victimized has all the support and help they need,” it said. “If a thorough, independent investigation turns up no incidents of misconduct, the board should issue a statement so that there is no stain on the reputation of project mentors.”

Three former NAHJ board members said talk of inappropriate behavior between mentors and students dates back nearly a decade.

After the 2010 convention, a participant with Student Campus — a journalism training camp for college students that has since been terminated — told Rebecca Aguilar, that she and a peer were allegedly coerced into playing spin the bottle in a hotel room where there were mentors. At the time, Aguilar was a recently nominated at-large member of the NAHJ board.

“They were all, like, just having fun,” Aguilar said in an interview earlier this week. “But then it turned to this.”

Aguilar said she also spoke with the other young woman involved in the incident and set out to get a policy written about fraternization.

Aguilar spoke with a Latino Reporter journalist on Thursday, at which time she had not been contacted by investigators. In a phone call Saturday morning she said investigators had contacted her.

In a March 2011 email to NAHJ members, Aguilar said she informed a number of board members about the incident immediately after the previous year’s convention and insisted that measures be taken to avoid controversial or inappropriate behavior.

“My point is this — everything in this Student Project should be conducted in a professional manner at all times. Even after hours when the partying begins — because NAHJ is responsible for the students,” Aguilar wrote in the email, a copy of which was provided to The Latino Reporter by Contreras and confirmed by Aguilar. “We cannot afford as an organization to have someone come back in the future and accuse us of wrongdoing and possibly sue us.”

Former board member Manuel De La Rosa said he also pushed for a policy to address fraternization. “We tried. We didn’t accomplish our goal,” he said.

“Why there was never a document, I don’t know,” Aguilar said. “I applaud the current board for having something in writing.”

John de Dios, then co-adviser of the NAHJ-University of Arizona student chapter, wrote to NAHJ President Michele Salcedo after the 2010 convention to complain about the socializing between mentors and mentees.

That letter has been obtained by The Latino Reporter.

Reached on Friday, de Dios said he didn’t want to comment further. He told a reporter, “you have it. Let’s leave it at that.”

Among the behavior cited by de Dios was that a mentor and student had “hooked up” and a different mentor and a mentee had made out in public.

“Because of this behavior and atmosphere, I am very regretful to say that I have been completely disheartened by NAHJ,” he wrote. He went on to say that the university would no longer send students to national conventions or student projects if the behavior was allowed to continue.

Salcedo did not return an email request for comment.

Contreras said he wishes the board could have taken a stronger stance. He recently posted a message to his Facebook page about alleged misconduct and said he was inspired to say something because of the #MeToo movement, and that he is cooperating with the investigators.

“What I can do to make amends,” he said in a recent interview, “is bring it up.”

Editors note: This story has been edited by Maria Carillo, an assistant managing editor at the Tampa Bay Times, who has not worked with the Student Project prior to 2018.

Twitter: @serrano_alej

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