Honor Council Review Stirs Controversy

Sophia McCrimmon, Assistant Editor-in-Chief

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Dr. McGee explains the administration's decision to temporarily curtail the activity of the Honor Council.

Photo by Srishti Sanya
Dr. McGee explains the administration’s decision to temporarily curtail the activity of the Honor Council.

On March 10, the MLWGS community learned that the activity of the Honor Council would be temporarily curtailed during a period of review focused on evaluating due process and confidentiality within our student-administered honor system. The announcement came in the wake of widely-circulated public critiques of the honor system posted on social media, some of which alluded to individual cases and provoked concern within the administration over student privacy and confidentiality.

The administration’s legal concerns center around the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), a federal law which protects the privacy of student education records within all public schools. FERPA allows for the disclosure of confidential student records to certain parties, primarily “school officials with legitimate educational interest,” like counselors, administrators, or certain faculty. At MLWGS, such parties arguably include Honor Council members, who work with sensitive student information during their adjudication process. According to Dr. Jeff McGee, Director of MLWGS, the degree of access granted to students is one of the key points of contention in this issue. “We can become potentially a little bit strained when we extend access to student information over to the student realm,” he said. “Even with exceptional people, this expands the scope of awareness within our community.”

The integrity of our sitting Honor Council students is beyond reproach.”

— Dr. McGee

According to Derrick Wang (’16), the chairman of the Honor Council, access to truly confidential information is limited throughout the group’s adjudication process. “Honor Council members are not privy to most confidential academic or disciplinary records,” he said. “The level of confidentiality is, in my opinion, very secure.” In addition, many feel that the personal qualifications of members and the bylaws of the Council protect against the abuse of student information. Mr. John Wilkes, Honor Council sponsor and faculty advisor, noted that, “The students who serve on the MLWGS Honor Council are the most noble, hard-working, honest, thorough, and discreet group of students I have ever seen.” The board of students goes to great lengths to prioritize student confidentiality through their own procedures. “There are safeguards in place so that cases are worked with a sufficient level of professionalism and lack of bias,” said Honor Council member Robin Schwartzkopf (’17). “For instance, no Honor Council member is allowed to access the name of a student in question until the Council decides to accuse them of an honor violation.” Names and identifying information are redacted until the members of the Council meet face-to-face with an accused party, so the bulk of their decisions are made without any opportunity for bias. Wang explained that “If you read through the honor code, you’ll see a very clear set of procedures that we go through with every case.” Students are granted the opportunity to have a student lawyer, avoid self-incrimination, and appeal cases to the Honor Council sponsor or administration in the case of procedural abnormalities.   

I think that this is a reactionary policy that isn’t necessarily doing what it’s supposed to do.”

— Kiera Goddu

Dr. McGee affirmed the exceptional character of Honor Council members, and expressed that the period of curtailment was not in response to any violation of procedures by sitting members but rather out of a larger concern for the complications of student-administered due process. “The integrity of our sitting Honor Council students is beyond reproach,” he said. “This is not about that group of students — it’s more in regards to what we’re asking them to do, and whether we should be asking them to do these things.”

Maggie Walker’s honor system is distinct from many others at the high school level in that is almost entirely student-administered, with the student-run Honor Council at the forefront of that effort. In the eyes of Dr. McGee, due process by students has its challenges as well as its benefits. “In our situation, students are applying due process to fellow students who may then down the line be competing with them for some of the same types of opportunities,” he explained. “From a professional standpoint, due process applied by students is a bit tenuous.” For Dr. McGee, recent confidentiality issues intensified these concerns and necessitated a period of review. “It’s difficult to apply an appropriate consequence to a student who violates confidentiality when perhaps they shouldn’t have been in possession of the confidentiality in the first place,” he said. “I would be professionally negligent if we didn’t curtail the functioning until we can take a look at this.”

From a professional standpoint, due process applied by students is a bit tenuous.”

— Dr. McGee

On the issue of due process, Honor Council members and their sponsor Mr. Wilkes have continued to assert the integral importance of a student-driven system. “I believe in a student-administered, student-led honor system,” said Mr. Wilkes. “I think it is a precious thing… It might very well be the most important pillar of our school.” Wang concurred with this sentiment, and expressed doubt about the success of alternative processes. “I don’t think that in the long term, a faculty or administratively run system would be any more fair or any more just than the student-run system currently in place,” he said. The crucial component of a student-led system, according to Mr. Wilkes and others, is the unique perspective and insight that students can draw from when evaluating their peers. “The students who come before the Council benefit tremendously from having their peers listen to their cases, because what they get from a body of peers is a perspective on life as a student,” said Mr. Wilkes. “Our Honor Council members can see truth and circumstance and intent better than any adult.”

Even considering the administration’s legal concerns, the temporary suspension of Honor Council activity has provoked mixed reactions from members of the MLWGS community, who are concerned about the future of the Council as a key form of student representation and centerpiece to our student-driven honor system. “I think that this is a reactionary policy that isn’t necessarily doing what it’s supposed to do… There’s definitely room for concern that things unrelated to the Honor Council may have severe consequences for our program,” said Kiera Goddu (’17), a sitting member of the Honor Council, who also believes that a review of Honor Council processes does not necessarily require a curtailment of its activity. “You can review your physics curriculum or your biology curriculum, but that doesn’t mean you stop teaching physics or biology. We can review and make changes but that doesn’t mean we should pump the brakes completely, especially since this is such an integral institution.”

[The student-run honor system] might very well be the most important pillar of our school.”

— Mr. Wilkes

Much of the student body seems to agree. According to a recent survey conducted by Anthony Holten (’16), 75% of students expressed a negative response to the decision to curtail Honor Council activity, with the largest plurality (29%) indicating complete dissatisfaction. A generally negative public opinion with regards to the administration’s handling of honor extends far beyond this single decision. Holten reported that “without a shadow of a doubt, the great body of students strongly disapproves of the current administration.” Many harbor concerns that discipline and punishment are not applied fairly, that the system is biased towards certain students, or that administrators allow a push for academic accolades to overshadow the preservation of integrity over achievement.

In response to such accusations, Dr. McGee has emphasized the consistency and fidelity with which the administration implements honor-related discipline. Currently, MLWGS works under a policy of restorative justice, in which single Honor Code violations in freshman or sophomore year are typically treated fairly leniently. “If a student has an infraction in freshman or sophomore year, they receive their consequences, they do their penance, and they are welcomed back into our community,” said Dr. McGee. “That has been very consistently communicated.” Dr. McGee also expressed his belief in restorative justice over harsher zero-tolerance policies. “To think that problems with academic integrity will go away if we have a zero-tolerance academic policy I think is shortsighted,” he said. In October 2015, the administration took steps to strengthen the MLWGS Academic Standards Policy by incorporating the requirement that students “exercise ethical academic behaviors in line with high standards of character.” This measure means that a student’s record of academic integrity can and does have an affect on their placement at this school, just like their grades or number of community service hours. Though this new policy cannot be applied retroactively, McGee stated unequivocally that “from this point forward there will not be students that have multiple honor violations and are permitted to continue here.”

Efforts by students to start a conversation about this have been punished despite the fact that they made no libelous allegations.”

— John Metz

The counseling department’s policy regarding honor code violations has also become a point of controversy among the student body. With regards to reporting honor code infractions, the counseling department does not report such records to colleges and the responsibility is left up to the student. Maggie Walker’s policy is not unique in this regard; according to a 2008 article from the National Association for College Admission Counseling, 77% of high school counseling departments do not disclose disciplinary and academic infractions to prospective colleges or only do so in certain situations, such as if a student would pose a potential danger to other students.

On the issue of school-associated scholarships (ones for which students are nominated by the scholarship committee), honor code infractions “are not an automatic bar to earning a scholarship, but are taken very seriously and are a huge factor in the scholarship process,” said senior counselor Dr. Loving. Dr. Loving also explained the complicated position of counselors with regards to honor code violations. “As a counselor, I try to distance myself from the disciplinary process of honor code violations,” she said. “It is my role and responsibility to be an advocate for students, and I need to be unbiased.” Though counselors attempt to approach students with “unconditional positive regard,” they also rely on the expertise of the Honor Council sponsor in determining whether or not a student should report infractions. In response to the lack of trust among students in the handling of honor by the MLWGS administration, Dr. Loving expressed concern “because it seems like this public outcry is based on information that may not be completely factual.”

If administration could be more transparent in matters regarding honor code violations, we would see fewer rumors and less conflict. ”

— Shreya Shetty

Both students and administrators agree that an improvement in communication within the MLWGS community could ease much of the tension between parties and allow for a more productive dialogue. According to Shreya Shetty (’17), “If administration could be more transparent in matters regarding honor code violations and how they affect us as students, we would see fewer rumors and less conflict.” Dr. McGee echoed this sentiment in saying that a school-wide conversation on honor is necessary “so things can come out into the light and be evaluated.” Yet many recent attempts to publicly discuss the perceived flaws in administrative policy on honor have been derailed by concerns for confidentiality or the dissemination of false information, leaving students at a loss as to what is and isn’t acceptable speech.

“Efforts by upstanding students to start a conversation about this have been punished despite the fact that they made no libelous allegations,” said John Metz (’16). “This school prides itself on producing students who are not just academic stars but also good citizens; how can we continue to call ourselves good citizens when all the avenues available for redress are, for all intents and purposes, closed to us?” he asked. For Goddu, those wishing to criticize the administration of honor should “talk about procedural failings instead of trying to fall back on anecdotal evidence and beginning to get into student privacy.” Wang also noted that a focus on individual cases can be unwise and unproductive. “The issue is that when we talk about individual cases, there’s often a lot of misinformation or rumors,” he said. This misinformation can easily dominate a conversation since Honor Council members are unable to confirm or deny any rumors without breaching confidentiality. On this issue, Dr. McGee emphasized the harm in targeting individual students. “We have to resist the temptation of a stance of public humiliation. That’s medieval,” he said. “You may believe it’s an honorable thing to publicly call out someone who is dishonorable, but in doing so you make yourself complicit in that process.”

The real question at the heart of this is: are we a school that places trust in its student body?”

— Derrick Wang

As issues of confidentiality, procedure, and trust intersect around the decision to curtail honor council activity, the MLWGS community proceeds down an uncertain path in regards to the future of student-directed due process. Over the course of this period of review, the administration seeks to chart that path in considering the amount of responsibility which can and should be placed in the hands of students. “The real question at the heart of this is: are we a school that places trust in its student body?” said Wang. “Having a system like ours does put a lot of responsibility on students, but I think that’s one of the core tenets of our school. We want leadership by students. We want students here to take charge of their own education and academic environment.” To Honor Council members, this unexpected administrative scrutiny seems to threaten the survival of a nearly twenty year old institution. “Students should be concerned about what’s going on, because it could lead to drastic changes in our honor system that are completely in opposition to what they’ve been asking for this entire time,” said Goddu. Though the administration has affirmed a commitment to the tenets of our honor system, they also feel pressure to fully examine the potential challenges inherent in a student-directed program. “I support a review by your peers, to the extent that I am able to support that on a professional and ethical basis,” said McGee. “However, it has gotten out of balance in this particular situation. We have to make sure it’s functioning correctly.”

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