Honor Board introduces class meeting discussions, eliminates email case reports

In an effort to make the Honor Board more transparent and centralize its place in the community, all Honor Board cases will continue to be presented and discussed during class meetings, as they were in the class meetings this past cycle.

The change has been in the works since last year, when both Prefect Council and the administration expressed dissatisfaction with the process, in which students received a short email summarizing the case and an invitation to meet in Chaplain Father J. Young’s office during activities period to discuss the case if they wished.

“In a year and a half of town meetings, I think only one student came,” Head of Upper School Audrius Barzdukas said. “So that was not working. The attendance reports from the town meetings were consistently dismal, so we periodically meet to talk about how all aspects of the Honor Board are going. I think one of the hallmarks of our school is that we try to critically evaluate everything we do.”

The prefects also began to discuss over the summer how they wanted to improve the process, Head Prefect Henry Hahn ’14 said. Since Barzdukas, Young, Head of Student Affairs Jordan Church and dean and Prefect Council adviser Tamar Adegbile had already begun the same discussion, Young told the prefects to hold off, and they continued the discussion with the prefects soon after the school year began.

Although everyone agreed the “town meetings” were ineffective, the intent remains the same, Church said. They had originally switched from the old system in which the student body received long, detailed emails detailing Honor Board cases because such a method encouraged no constructive conversation, education or clarification, which was what Prefect Council and the Honor Board advisers wanted, Church said.

“That was really the big failure,” Young said. “What we want is for students to learn from the cases and we didn’t feel like that was happening.”

 

Instead, the limited amount of one-way information led students to false conclusions that focused too much on the punishment and not “a more macro or holistic aspect of what’s happening in the case,” Church said.

The next logical move in the attempt to start a conversation, Church said, was to move to another built-in time like class meeting.

“We unfortunately don’t have time to pull the entire student body together,” Adegbile said. “We felt that something was better than nothing. This is a way to ensure more people are having a voice.”

The opportunity for more students to have a voice and to make Honor Board cases a center of discussion will hopefully increase the Board’s presence in the community, Adegbile said.

“We had talked a lot about how to make the Honor Code and the Honor Board more relevant in our community and not just something people glance over,” she said.

“We definitely wanted it to be more a community situation.”

Barzdukas emphasized the Honor Board’s role as more than just a glance-worthy institution.

“The Honor Board does not exist just to adjudicate,” he said. “It also exists to educate and inspire. We want the Honor Board to lead us. We want the Honor Board to lead our school in terms of developing good character and academic integrity and so to the degree possible we want to empower the Board to lead us in this realm, in this way, and I just want to be there to support the Board.”

The new process also increases the Board’s transparency, an issue the Honor Board advisers considered when studying the methods of other independent schools. Adegbile said they especially studied Quaker schools, which have community meanings and are dedicated to transparency.

“Ultimately, it’s about achieving the goal of transparency and helping the community learn about the consequences of poor choices,” Church said, echoing similar sentiments by Barzdukas.

However, Young said complete transparency is neither feasible nor desirable.

“It’s important for the community to be able to learn from other people’s mistakes, and so to that degree I think transparency’s really important,” Young said. “But we never intended nor in this new move do we intend to create a transparent process. That’s not our intent. Our intent is to become more transparent, but not transparent. With the Honor Board, there is a limit to that.”

Young compared the school’s methods to those of Quaker schools, where their equivalent of Honor Board cases are presented and discussed using the individual’s real name.

“That’s ultimate transparency, and I don’t see us moving in that direction,” Young said.

In fact, the Honor Board advisers consider anonymity crucial to the case discussions.

“It’s not like we’re going to be affixing scarlet letters to anyone,” Barzdukas said. “We’re not calling anybody out. We’re talking about what happened, but under the cloak of anonymity.”

“The perfection for me would be for the student to attend the meetings and still remain anonymous and get a sense of the community reaction to their offense,” Young said.

But that, too, has been a fraught subject—whether the student who was the subject of the Honor Board case should attend their class meeting. Prefect Council has been contemplating giving the student the option to attend, and although Hahn was pretty sure they had finalized this decision, opinions were still mixed.

“This person is a student, they should go to the class meeting,” Barzdukas said. “They’re a student. Students go to class meetings.”

Young, on the other hand, was uncomfortable with mandating that the student attend, although he said he would privately encourage them to do so.

“It’s a double-edged sword, because if a student doesn’t attend, it calls attention to him or her,” Young said. “If the student does attend, I know it could be uncomfortable. I’d probably vote for leaving it up to the student.”

“I understand the world isn’t always perfect,” he added. “In some past Honor Board cases, it’s been pretty clear who the student is.” Such situations, he said, would make attendance particularly uncomfortable.

Corinna* ’14, who went before the Honor Board last year, said that if she had the choice, she would not attend a class meeting about her case.

“After your Honor Board case, you already have to meet with Mr. Barzdukas, he already told you what you did was wrong,” she said. “That’s the fifth time you have to hear it. I would want to put it behind me and just move on.”

She acknowledged that her absence from class meeting could draw attention, but was repulsed by the idea that students would automatically begin speculation along those lines. If she noticed a classmate’s absence, she said she would sooner chalk it up to something like a doctor’s appointment.

“The likelihood that it’s a senior is already one third, if that,” Corinna said. “The likelihood that it’s a senior in your class meeting lessens the probability even more. Maybe the solution to all this is not saying what grade the person’s in.”

However, if the student did choose to attend class meeting, Hahn wasn’t sure whether they would be allowed to participate in the discussion. Before attending, the student would probably have to agree not to challenge their case’s own decision, he said.

“Understandably it’s an emotional thing to have to be given these kinds of consequences,” Hahn said. “We as a board do recognize that not every student is going to agree with every decision we make in terms of consequences, and we don’t want to start turning one specific dean venue into a battleground to contest an Honor Board case.”

However, Hahn said he was doubtful the student would participate in such a manner, if at all.

Young, meanwhile, said he was confident all students would be able to discuss the situation in a depersonalized manner. What he was more concerned about, he said, was the level of participation that would occur, considering the lack of interest students had previously had in meeting in his office.

“Hopefully it is different,” he said. “It’s different when you have to be in a meeting anyhow. It’s kind of like if we made all classes optional, how many people would attend. That doesn’t mean the kids don’t get something out of the class. You can still get good stuff out of a meeting even though you’re being forced to go. It can’t get any worse than the past, though. Even if 50 percent, even if 25 percent of the students are engaged, that’s heck of a lot more than we’ve had in the past.”

Hahn noted that just as students hadn’t attended the town hall meetings because they wished to attend clubs or relax during activities period, some students might resent the time spent in class meeting that could have been a free period. However, he was confident that the class meeting time would be effective for students who were interested in understanding and discussing the case and had been simply unable to attend the town hall meetings.

“If just one person raises a question during a class meeting I think it will all of a sudden get other people thinking about different things,” he said.

Adegbile said that although the conversations in her class meetings weren’t long, the students were responsive and attentive.

“I thought it went well,” she said. “They expressed that [the case] seemed straightforward, and they felt good about what they heard.”

Although the new format has just begun, Barzdukas emphasized that they were open to any suggestion on how to improve it.

“I really think one of the big things is that if anybody has a better idea, we’re open to hearing it and trying it,” he said. “Part of this process is really trying to get the Honor Board and the Honor Code more deeply embedded in our culture, and not have the Honor Board and the Honor Code be a thing apart. All of us need to own the code, all of us need to own the process and be invested in it. That’s what makes a strong community.”

He added that he didn’t think anyone at Harvard-Westlake hesitates to offer constructive criticism. Young, on the other hand, did not think it was clear that student criticism is welcome, and added that there were limitations to suggestion.

“It’s like saying a teacher is open for suggestion on how a class should be taught, which I think most of our teachers are, but in the end, the class still has to be taught, the material still has to be covered, there’re certain parameters, so the truth is the degree to which we’re open to suggestion is not 100 percent,” Young said. “You can’t walk up to a teacher and say, I’d like more English in this history class. You know that’s not going to happen. On the other hand, in terms of tweaks and making the process a better one, absolutely do I think we’re open to suggestions, and I don’t think we’ve made that clear to the community.”

 

 

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