By Allison Hamburger
With portions of the Honor Code before them, groups of 10th graders in Head of Upper School Harry Salamandra’s Choices and Challenges class face a hypothetical decision: to keep, to change, or to discard the well-known words.
“What ends up happening is, even if they initially start out saying ‘We want to throw this whole section out,’ other members in the class start talking about ‘Wait a minute, don’t you need that piece,’ and if you don’t have all these little pieces, then [the Honor Code] kind of isn’t whole,” Salamandra said. The Honor Code and the Honor Board aim to create a community of trust, states the student handbook.
“[My students] seemed to be very suspicious of [the Honor Code], but what I tell them is that this is for 10 years down the road,” then-Honor Board adviser Larry Klein said in 1998. “It’s a long-term benefit. It will change the nature of our community.”
Now, 20 years after the code and board were proposed and 14 years after their implementation, the honor system still exists, but not without evolution.
Spencer Rascoff ’93 was First Prefect during the second year after the merger that formed Harvard-Westlake, and the school was looking to develop an identity. Rascoff had noticed colleges’ honor systems, so he proposed adopting one.
“I would argue that the Honor Code was part of a bigger picture,” Rascoff said. “There was a desire to treat students maturely and responsibly, to put responsibility of ethics in the hands of the students.”
An honor system would reduce cheating, lying and stealing, the administration said in 1992. After Rascoff graduated, student government and faculty members who had attended universities with honor systems worked for six years to craft an Honor Code.
In the spring of 1998, students voted to adopt the Honor Code, the Honor Board, both or neither. Out of 432 voters, 57 percent voted for implementing both the code and the board, 12 percent voted for just the code, and 31 percent voted against both.
More students than adults have always sat on the board, which appealed to students, Chaplain Father J. Young said. The Honor Board would also serve as “a forum for discussing ideas and issues,” Klein said, and create more consistency in administering punishments.
Faculty responded positively to the proposal. Many teachers, Chair of Upper School Faculty Academic Committee Kent Nealis said, would rather have a disciplinary situation be looked at from an outside perspective, even if that means losing freedom to handle the issue.
Initially, students chose whether or not to sign the code. Students who signed were given the option of appearing before the board after an infraction.
The new honor process was gradually implemented Salamandra said, due to the reluctance of some upperclassmen.
“[The Honor Code] was wanting to enhance a trust community that was already in place,” Young said. “This was kind of the next logical step, because a lot of the things that were in the Honor Code were not new to the community.”
Yet by May 1999, a Chronicle story read, “Most teachers are not able to walk out of a classroom during a test, and students are still hesitant to leave their backpacks unattended on campus — students continue to cheat, do drugs and steal.”
Teachers lacked full trust in the system, one student said, which undermined the code. No student selected to go before the Honor Board until 2000, when two students accused of stealing a cafeteria soda agreed to do so.
The board began hearing all infractions during the 2001-2002 school year, the same year the code was implemented at the Middle School. Salamandra said he believes the ideals are now “woven into the fabric of the school.”
The Student Council and Honor Board were separately elected bodies until they were combined in 2006, a controversial decision, Young said.
“When you really, really get down to it, both bodies were concerned about the same thing, and that is making Harvard-Westlake a better place,” Young said.
The proposal had been rejected multiple times by Student Council before it passed, though Honor Board members supported it unanimously. There was no community-wide vote on the matter.
“[A vote] seemed unnecessary given that we had already decided to put the new government through,” Student Body President Andrew Segal ’06 said at the time. An unofficial poll revealed 86 percent of 287 students surveyed were opposed to the upcoming merger. It was unclear if the voters were fully informed, Salamandra said at the time.
The merger was “rammed down our throat,” a Student Council member said.
In 2007, a Prefect Council subcommittee to reassess the Honor Code hosted an adult-free forum during junior and senior class meetings. However, instead of discussing the code’s purpose and importance, as was intended, the senior meeting turned loud and unproductive.
The subcommittee also met with each department and recommended that each define their specific Honor Code policies. But when over 20 students were suspended or expelled for stealing and distributing history and Spanish midterms, the proposals were put on hold indefinitely.
A year later, a policy was implemented to allow teachers to deal with minor first offenses without the Honor Board.
“Right now, I think it’s meeting the needs of our community,” Salamandra said. “If the students felt that it wasn’t in some way, I would be willing to look at a proposal to see what modifications should be considered, but right now, it seems to be meeting the needs of our community.”
In 2003, 75 percent of a random sample of 55 students said they “believe cheating is a problem at this school.”
Over the years, Prefect Council and other community members have suggested alterations to parts of the process, but often, the feedback is “sporadic” and unconstructive, Young said.
The role of the Honor Code comes into question in FAC discussions, Nealis said. Because of the code, making multiple versions of tests, for example, should be unnecessary, he said.
“If you have an Honor Code, should you then conduct yourself as if though students and faculty are going to behave honorably and accept the fact that there are going to be occasions when missteps are made and those become teachable moments because we all make mistakes?” Nealis said. “Or do we do our very very very very best to remove all temptation?”
“Unfortunately, I’d have to say overall, I don’t believe the code has had a tremendous effect on our students, either then or now,” Young said. “I wouldn’t go as far as to say it’s been ignored or irrelevant or anything like that, but I think to say all of our students have it etched into their heart, soul and mind would be pretty false. It’s important to people, but usually it’s important mostly when an issue arises.”