Sirus Wheaton ’19 stood alone, surrounded by hundreds of strangers. The crowd was silent in anticipation, waiting for the members of BROCKHAMPTON to perform at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival. When the band walked on stage, however, Wheaton said he no longer felt alone.
“I was just there by myself,” Wheaton said. “I thought it would be so awkward, but it ended up being just so much fun, just jumping around and knowing all the words. I felt like I was close to the band, and when they came out, they just seemed like they were part of us.”
For Wheaton, Coachella offered a sense of closeness and belonging that he said he had not been able to replicate at any other concert.
“I felt like the whole crowd was just one, collectively,” Wheaton said. “We were all cheering and doing the same things, and everyone was just happy. It felt like a community rather than a whole bunch of individuals.”
However, the magic of the festival would not last; Wheaton said he knew would face a detention when he arrived at school on Monday for missing school on Friday. Since former Head of Upper School Audrius Barzdukas created the “Take Pride in Honesty and Own It” policy in 2013, Coachella has been considered an unexcused absence, resulting in the penalty of detention for every day that was missed for the festival.
Spanning two weekends in April, Coachella has attracted an increased number of students every year, Upper School Student Discipline & Attendance Coordinator Gabriel Preciado said. 425 students missed some form of school for the two weekends for reasons ranging from senior ditch day to college tours. Around 80 of those students credited their absences to Coachella the first weekend, which Preciado said was a record number of students who told the truth and accepted the punishment.
According to the Upper School Student/Parent Handbook, any unexcused absence can result in a “zero or failing grade for work during that period.” This policy has created some controversy among students, Ashlee Wong ’18, who attended Coachella the first weekend, said. Of 332 students who responded to the Chronicle April poll, 58 percent said they are not in support of the school’s policy regarding Coachella-related absences.
“Excused absences could include weddings and family reunions, which are meant to be fun, so Coachella shouldn’t be any different,” Wong said. “It is slightly hypocritical. Some school events, like field trips to art museums or whale watching, are of course a good addition to a course but aren’t necessarily needed for a class, just a fun and extra addition.”
Recognizing this argument, Head of Upper School Laura Ross said that although there are some differences between attending the festival and other absences, the administration will have a discussion to create a clear difference between excused and unexcused absences.
“The hard part is that we can’t control the choices that parents make, [and] this one is generally the student’s decision,” Ross said. “There’s no policy changes [about other absences] right now, but there are more conversations in sight. We are always looking at if we are doing things the way that is best, and [we are] always looking at why and the underpinnings of things that we have.”
In the 2010-2011 and 2011-2012 school year, the administration offered Coachella as an excused absence. However, because the volume of student attendees spiked rapidly, Preciado said the school changed the policy. Furthermore, condoning attendance could turn into a slippery slope in which many other unexcused absences could theoretically be permitted, Preciado said.
“If we can accept an event like this for students going out to have a good time and have fun, what is the difference between that and staying home and watching TV all day?” Preciado said. “It makes any reason acceptable. If it’s a recreational day for some, [it would] make it a recreational day for all.”
Condoning an event like Coachella would also interfere with the mission of inclusivity, Preciado said. Because many students do not have the financial means or the time to attend the festival, changing the policy to permit absences could disrupt students’ school atmosphere.
“We have to be cognizant of the fairness of it all,”Preciado said. “There are students who can’t go and pay that premium price, and if we excuse others, those that don’t have the means are not excused and have to go to school. We have to stick to our core values and our core mission. There’s ‘happiness and balance,’ for some, but there’s not ‘happiness and balance’ for all. At that point, it would not be inclusive.”
Although Harvard-Westlake Parent Association President Jackie Klein (Andrew ’18) said she recognized that many parents disagreed with the policy, she said the school does have a part to play in the decision.
“In general, parents parent, and it’s their decision on how to parent,” Klein said. “There are some parents who condone it, and that’s fine, but that is probably different in the school’s eyes than [something like a] family reunion. The school has to draw a balance and look at the two and say, ‘we’re not parents but we’re the school.’”
Preciado acknowledged that the threat of detention does not act as a very large deterrent to attending Coachella; 79 percent of the 314 respondents to the Chronicle poll said the consequences of an unexcused absence did not deter them from attending Coachella. Carolyn Kim ’18 said she went to Coachella fully aware of and in agreement with the consequences.
“[Detention] is a consequence of missing school for a concert,” Kim said. “If I fully have the capability to go to school but miss to go to a music festival, then yes, I should accept the punishment of the detention. It is my senior year and was my first time attending, and I thought of it as almost a reward for years of stressful second semesters.”
Klein said the school’s policy regarding Coachella seemed to be a balanced compromise between the needs of the students and those of the school.
“It could, conceivably, be a lot harsher penalty for missing school,” Klein said. “You can speak in the abstract, but in the reality, it’s a day when you can potentially have so many absences that it causes a disruption to the students who are in school. The kids who chose this day are now penalized for learning, which frankly isn’t fair either. It seems to me to be a reasonable compromise between the two extremes. It’s just that each side is trying to balance and deal with the ramifications of their choices the best they can.”
Although he said he does not see the policy changing in the future, Preciado admits that he does recognize that something is unique about the festival.
“The type of students that come to Harvard-Westlake [are] the type that see school to be one of their biggest priorities for getting to their future destinations,” Preciado said. “There are a lot of students who never miss in the school year, and they miss [for Coachella], and they will never miss again. They want to build memories outside of school, while they’re still students here before they go off to college, and Coachella, for them, is the platform for that.”