Creating a School of Honor and Integrity

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The student-run honor system has been a pillar of Maggie Walker for years.

Photo courtesy of mlwgs.com
The student-run honor system has been a pillar of Maggie Walker for years.

To the Editor,

Hello! My name is Derrick Wang, and I am the Chair of the Honor Council. Yes, I know. Me again. But I promise this is important, so spare a few moments of your time.

If you haven’t noticed, our school has suddenly become embroiled in controversies regarding our Honor Code. Before discussing our path forward, I think it’s important that we cut through some of the confusion and set out very clearly what the situation is right now. More than ever, our school community must be united in our support of the student-led honor system. Let’s make sure we all understand where we are.

The Honor Council has a long history at Maggie Walker. For fifteen years, our school has had a unique student-run system of honor, where peers held each other accountable to standards of ethical behavior. This system of trust, responsibility, and freedom is a hallmark of our school. The MLWGS Vision Statement declares that our school is meant to “develop life-long learners who embrace the responsibility of citizenship, the value of ethical leadership, and the richness of diverse cultures.” The student-run honor system is the best example of an institution that actively advocates for these ideals. As all of you are aware, the student Honor Council, consisting of elected representatives from each class, investigates, charges, adjudicates, and recommends consequences for students reported for violations of our Honor Code. This is the task that Honor Council members have been faithfully carrying out for years at our school, fostering a culture of trust through student accountability.

We cannot “un-know” the illegality of previous proceedings, and therefore must change.”

This system is now under review. A recent event, which the Honor Council made a statement about earlier this week (and which I will not discuss further here), sparked concern over the legality of our Honor Code process. The Regional School Board and the school administration consulted the school’s legal counsel, who advised them that the Honor Council was not consistent with the regulations of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. In simple terms, the Board and administration found that having the student Honor Council members be aware of individual students’ honor violations and classroom work constituted a violation of FERPA. The argument is that this law, which applies to K-12 schools, restricts access to student “academic records” to “school officials,” meaning students on the Honor Council are not legally allowed to know the honor situations and evidence regarding individual students.

I freely admit: I don’t have the legal knowledge to challenge this finding, and even if I could find a way to do so, it has been accepted as fact by the Board and administration. This may seem especially curious considering the length of time that the Honor Council has operated without facing legal challenges. But as a Board member told me, “Regardless of how long the honor council operated in violation of FERPA without a challenge, the fact is that there now has been a challenge. We cannot ‘un-know’ the illegality of previous proceedings, and therefore must change.” At this point, some kind of change to our honor system will likely be inevitable, so we must now turn our attention to what changes are going to be made.

At the most recent Regional Board Meeting, the Board voted to place the honor system under review, and to curtail the Honor Council from accepting any cases while under review. However, thanks to a vigorous response from the entire Maggie Walker community, we have been assured by both the administration and the School Board that the Honor Council will continue to exist and it will remain student-run. I’ll take a moment here to express my sincere gratitude to every single student, alumnus, and parent who spoke at the meeting or emailed the Board members, as your support was absolutely crucial in this decision. Without your support, we would not be able to maintain this system. Thank you all for your advocacy.

A student-led honor system must be a strong system if it to be effective in any way.”

So, what now? Are we done here? Can you stop reading this long-winded letter? Unfortunately, not yet.

The honor system is now under review by a ten-person committee, consisting of a Chair or current member of the Honor Council, an SCA president or representative, a PTSA representative), a School Advisory Council parent representative, a teacher/counselor (REA member), another at-large teacher/counselor, a MLWGS Administrative representative, a School Board representative, a Superintendent’s Steering Committee representative, and an alumni representative. The exact members will be confirmed at the next School Board meeting in April. The review committee would make recommendations to the School Board regarding changes that should be made to the honor system procedures, guided by the school’s legal counsel.

While I appreciate the diversity of interests represented on the committee, I cannot help but feel that the Honor Council and those with direct experience with honor procedures need to have a more prominent voice on this committee. As honored as I am by the implication that I would be able to effectively represent the views of all eleven of my colleagues and our faculty sponsor, I believe that it would be better for more of them to be able to demonstrate their opinions themselves. I would recommend that more than one representative of our Honor Council be present in addition to our faculty sponsor. These people are ultimately the ones who have to enforce the procedures of the Honor Code every day, and understand its workings. I think it would be wise that the committee be guided by experience with our current honor system. We would obviously want to avoid misguided or uninformed decisions be avoided, however well-intentioned they may be. The best way to accomplish this is to have greater representation of those who are closely connected with our honor system and the workings of our community of trust.

While I appreciate the diversity of interests represented on the committee, I cannot help but feel that the Honor Council and those with direct experience with honor procedures need to have a more prominent voice on this committee.”

Even more crucially, the future of this institution is at stake in the weeks to come. We have been assured that the Honor Council will continue to exist. But in what form? A student-led honor system must be a strong system if it to be effective in any way. There is a proposal on the table to allow accused honor violators an option between having their case reviewed by the student Honor Council or by the administration. The defendant would have to waive their FERPA rights through a waiver in order to go through the student system, and if they refused, they would only be able to go through the administration. While this does solve the legal question regarding FERPA, it presents some more issues. The obvious question: would anyone actually choose to go through the Honor Council? Would students choose to waive their FERPA rights and have their case adjudicated by their elected representatives, or would they simply go through administration? The answer to this is unclear, but it is very clear that if nobody ever chooses to use the Honor Council, it would become defunct. Student-run honor depends on all students being held to a standard by their peers. I fear that this proposal could ultimately lead to the Honor Council becoming a vestigial body, with no jurisdiction, rather than the pillar of our school that it has been for so many years. While I appreciate the difficulties in trying to find a legally workable solution, I cannot say that this proposal would solve all our problems. It risks relegating the Honor Council to a futile and ineffectual role in our school community. More options should be explored before settling on this preliminary proposal.

Shouldn’t we keep self-government at the Governor’s School for Government and International Studies?”

Now, I know we’ve all been through a lot in the past few weeks. Certainly, our school’s Honor Code has never faced the level of controversy and scrutiny that has consumed it in the past few weeks. You may even be tired of the constant debate over this issue. But it matters. Not just to me, or to the other Honor Council members. This matters to every single student, parent, teacher, and alumni that is part of our school community. This is an issue that will affect everybody, even if you never are accused of an honor violation. Why?

There is a growing issue in our school. While it is not unique to Maggie Walker, it is particularly serious to our students, being the academic high-achievers that they are. It is called the “succeed at any cost” mindset, and it is becoming increasingly pervasive across the board in secondary schools. High schoolers have gotten it into their minds that getting into a “top” college (read: Ivy League) will guarantee free lunches and easy money for the rest of their lives! This is not reality. And while there is no problem with aiming high and applying to a prestigious university, there is a problem when this becomes the all-consuming goal of students and parents. By all means, you are all free to succeed and achieve and apply wherever you want, and may you succeed in the brawl of modern college admissions! But when students resort to cheating, plagiarizing, and dishonesty because they believe the higher grades they could earn will get them into an “elite” school, there is a serious problem. When students justify academic dishonesty with an attitude of “achievement over honor,” we have a serious issue.

The only way to combat this ever more pervasive attitude, this increasingly toxic culture of “success at any cost,” is to create a culture of integrity and trust. We have to understand that our personal honor is more critical than any letter grades or GPA. Your character will be judged on the basis of your actions. What you do is who you are. And let’s not forget that cheating doesn’t pay off; that should be pretty clear after a year’s worth of weekly Moments for Honor. For future students at this school to understand the culture of trust at this school, we must maintain a student system where peers hold each other accountable to standards of ethical behavior. Culture begins with individual students, not with top-down policy decisions. If we are to combat the toxicity of achievement over integrity, then students themselves must actively promote honor in all their own actions. What better way to accomplish this than students governing students? Shouldn’t we keep self-government at the Governor’s School for Government and International Studies?

The only way to combat this increasingly toxic culture of “success at any cost,” is to create a culture of integrity and trust.”

If you’ve made it this far, I congratulate you on your tenacity. By the end of this letter, my Honor Council colleagues and I will have written countless pages (7000+ words) of speeches, letters, articles, and talks regarding our honor system, from the summer letter in August, to the class assembly, to our talk at the faculty meeting, to the emails that we have written to Board members, and more. This isn’t even counting the countless hours of work that my fellow representatives have put in over the past few years with every single case we deal with, and every single initiative that we have put forth this year. This is something that we, and so many others, are fully committed to. We will continue our advocacy until we are guaranteed a system that will preserve student-led honor and integrity at our school. I, personally, will not endorse any proposal that gives our community anything less than it deserves. This institution and its legacy are too crucial, and the implications for all future students too critical, for us to settle for a weak or ineffective Honor Code.

For all of you who have already vocally supported Honor at Maggie Walker, I express my deepest gratitude to you for standing up for our honor code. For all of you who have not yet invested yourselves in this issue, I express my strongest encouragement to you, to get involved and defend our tradition of integrity! We will need the support of the entire community in the days ahead. If you have any questions, please contact any Honor Council member, and we will be more than willing to answer your queries.

At the end of the senior class assembly in September, I said, “Even though last year was rough, I don’t think that our honor system is going to fail.” I remain absolutely confident in this statement to this day. There is not a single doubt in my mind that the student-led honor system that has been a pillar of our school community for over a decade is the basis for the community of trust that we strive for. This is something worth keeping.

I hope you will share my confidence in the weeks ahead.

Derrick Wang
Honor Council Chair

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1 Comment

One Response to “Creating a School of Honor and Integrity”

  1. Barrett Brown on March 27th, 2016 6:56 pm

    How ironic that, in time when anybody can find out just about anything about anyone, t the Maggie Walker Honor Council should
    run aground because of FERPA. It was, in my experience, one of the shining lights of the school.

    It might be instructive to review the case, many years ago, when there was a major honor violation during a student trip overseas. There were several students were involved. Some, but not all, parents brought in their lawyers to prevent their children from suffering the consequences of their behavior. The results of this incident resonated for many years – and not in a good way.

    I hope that all parties will proceed very thoughtfully in the current matter. The ramifications will be important and long-lasting.

    Barrett Brown
    Retired Chair, Dept of International Languages

    [Reply]

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Creating a School of Honor and Integrity