SING! controversy sparks calls for change to judging system

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Since SING! was first established at Townsend Harris, it has been a passionate project of the student body, often cultivating a highly competitive environment between Semores and Freshiors. As a result, almost every year, the results and judging process of SING! have been called into question. Following this year’s final SING! performance, the Freshiors’ triumph over the Semores has been similarly challenged due to allegations of the substantial involvement of alumni from the Class of 2018 as returning judges, prompting the administration to consider revising the current judging system.

Every year, the senior class faces the judgement of graduates from the preceding class. A Classic editorial published in 2012 highlights this issue, specifically framing alumni judges for the biased nature of the SING! judging system and alerting readers of the potential injustices that may result. Similarly, recent events have caused this discussion to resurface, as many have claimed that having recent graduates come back only reopens old wounds. In particular, the Class of 2018 and 2019 have a years-long rivalry because, up until now, the Semores have maintained a consistent three – year winning streak whereas the Class of 2018, partnered with the Class of 2020 (the current juniors), lost all four SING! competitions from 2014 – 2018. Now that they have returned to judge this year’s productions, many speculated that this had influenced their decision to vote in favor of the Freshiors.

According to Assistant Principal of Organization, Health, and Physical Education Ellen Fee, out of 100 judges, 47% were alumni from the Class of 2018, 20% were Class of 2017 alumni, 25% were alumni from earlier classes, and faculty members made up the remaining 8%. Many Semores believe that having a considerably larger number of Class of 2018 alumni on the judging panel compared to other classes may have impacted the outcome of this year’s SING!.

“We have no problem losing,” said Semore dance director and senior Tyler Conway. “We just don’t like feeling that the results were so heavily skewed because we had so many people come back from one particular grade or graduating class that would’ve thrown off the results because they didn’t want to see us win.”

Shortly after Saturday’s performance, Principal Brian Condon met with a small group of Semore directors that expressed discontent with this year’s outcome, wherein they requested to review the ballots and determine how it may have been different had alumni votes been disregarded.

Mrs. Fee explained that she and SING! Coordinator Sarah  Loew do their best to ensure fairness throughout the judging process. In the past, they would discard any ballots that seemed biased and made sure that there were no more than 30 point discrepancies, though this was not necessary this year. She added, “Mathematically, if 47% of the judges were leaning towards the Freshiors and there were 53% of the judges that had no reason to be biased (and I think if over half the judges were fair), then the outcome is fair.”

Mrs. Loew offered to provide The Classic with records of past alumni involvement and distribution in judging but was unable to do so before press time. She and Mrs. Fee declined to share this year’s ballots with The Classic. Mr. Condon agreed to provide them but had not done so before press time.

Nonetheless, participants from both teams agree that the current judging system is flawed and should be altered to prevent similar conflicts in the future.

“I feel like every year I hear complaints about something being unfair about the judging, either about the process or about the alumni participating in the judging,” said Semore advisor and English teacher Brian Brewer.

In theory, the judging process is fair, but it has a lot of potential to be unfair…We were told that if we came up with an idea that would avoid these issues that the staff would be open to them,” added overall Freshior director Usha Sookai.

Students have suggested limiting the number of judges from each class of alumni, establishing a timeframe after a class’s graduation before they can return to judge SING!, or weighing votes in accordance with the time after graduation (votes of more recent alumni are counted less), imitating the structure used for the election simulation. Mr. Condon also proposed acknowledging a winner for each category on the judges’ score sheet, including dancing, singing, props, creativity, costumes, backdrops, acting, and originality, hoping that it will alleviate tensions left after SING!. He explained, “I actually think it’s an opportunity for us to live up to our Ephebic oath, which is to leave this place a little better than we found it, and the truth is, SING! seems to be producing a lot of upset and a lot of controversy in the last two years, and that probably means we need to address it and fix it.”

Other members of the school community expressed their concerns with the current judging system. Music teacher and Semore advisor Kevin Heathwood reasoned that most recent graduates are more likely to return to their alma mater than earlier classes, and may also be more invested in their younger teammates’ success. “When SING! team members graduate…if they were to come back and see a performance, knowing myself… I would go in with a little bit of a bias, with a little bit more forgiveness of things that maybe didn’t go quite that right because you want to will them to win, you want to will them to be better,” he explained.

“Personally, I don’t believe the results of SING! were fair this year because of the distribution of alumni that came back to judge,” said Class of 2017 alumna and returning judge Marina Aweeda. “Usually an equal amount of alumni come back to support their respective years, which balances out any potential biases or conflicts with scoring.”

The aftermath of these circumstances has left Freshiors feeling somewhat short changed as well. “My worst fear is that all of the work the freshior team put in, the hard work of the directors and everyone else who contributed to the show, becomes discredited in the long run,” said Freshior director Angelina Jimenez. “I think we worked hard to achieve what we did and it’s very difficult to be told that the only reason we reached our goal was because of potentially extreme unfair judging.”

Mrs. Loew commented, “I hope that students who are currently in SING! will take this experience and, when they graduate, understand that it is their duty to be fair as a judge… [students] know that they wouldn’t want to have been judged unfairly.”

“SING! is one of those times where students come together, regardless if they know each other or not, to create an amazing show,” said Class of 2018 alum Micheal Quach. “It’s disheartening to see that sometimes personal feelings and agendas get in the way, and the competitive aspective overshadows the hard work and fun.”

Additional reporting by Julianna Zitron, News Editor