The board and the disciplinary process

*Editor’s Note: For the privacy of some of the individuals mentioned in this article, their names have been kept from publication and replaced with pseudonyms. These names have been denoted with asterisks.*

After going through the disciplinary process for a violation – which Harper (’14), as well as some faculty he spoke with, believes is minor – of the integrity component of the Code of Conduct, Harper has nothing to share but reproach for the procedures he underwent.

Harper found himself up late one night doing homework. Not a unique scenario for students in a high pressure high school, Harper – whether it be a result of laziness, exhaustion, or sheer fatigue – decided to plagiarize “a small portion of  a larger essay verbatim using an online source.”

That night, Harper reflects in retrospect, would be the first for many days in which sleep wouldn’t come easy. “I was tossing and turning in bed. I would leave after first period because I couldn’t sit through class. I was filled with anxiety and stress.”

This ensuing insomnia was a result of the looming threat of suspension (which is accompanied, by protocol, with full disclosure to universities), closed-campus, as well as a deemed appropriate for Harper’s offense.

Harper received an email one afternoon, after handing in the essay, from his teacher asking for him to meet with him. When he came to see her, she asked him about the plagiarism, and Harper admitted it right away; “I was forthright from the very beginning [in the disciplinary process.” His teacher then told him to see Dean of Students Joe Chodl who then told him the next day he would be facing Student Faculty Disciplinary Board (SFDB).

Chodl did not hand out a punishment directly. Instead, as is procedure, Harper went to the SFDB, who would later provide a secret recommendation to the administration. The SFDB serves as a consequence-recommending body; they do not decide who is and who isn’t guilty. “A common misconception is that the SFDB tries you, as if we’re judges,” SFDB Co-President Omar Elmasry (’14) explained. “The only way you come in front of the Board, is if you’re already guilty; if you have already admitted to Dr. Chodl you have breached the Code of Conduct.”

Nonetheless, High School Principal Jack Phillips said, “Off the top of my head, in 90% of cases we have gone with the recommendation from the SFDB.”

Elmasry emphasized that no administration is present at the case hearing. “Chodl will tell the Board what you have done, he’ll give them a full explanation. And then we will ask you if you agree with what he says. This all takes 30 seconds and then he’ll leave the room.

“The Board will then ask you questions with no specific limit or restriction on time so that the Board can understand the situation, where you’re coming from, the pressures you were under, the circumstances, if there were any, the assignment, the case; lots of questions.”

The ultimate purpose, Elmasry said, is that the Board wants to create “a very safe environment, [the Board] wants to understand you, the Board wants you to feel comfortable in front of them.”

Phillips outlined his role and that of Chodl as a different entity altogether from the SFDB in the disciplinary process. Chodl takes care of “the front end of it.” In short, “he does the investigation, he presents the cases to SFDB, and brings the student [in question] forward,” Phillips said.

Phillips, on the other hand, takes care of the larger picture. “I have semi-regular meetings with the SFDB where I discuss the philosophical underpinnings of cases.” In these meetings, he outlines general trends he sees and how the disciplinary process –both from the administration and the SFDB– should react to those.

The aforementioned empathy of the Board is why, as Elmasry believes, the SFDB exists. “The reason that the SFDB is there is so that students can judge [the situation and circumstances of the offense] and help other students, help other people, to get out of the situation that they are in.”

Creating that empathetic link – understanding the students and deciding what is best for them – is a duty Elmasry thinks “the Board excels at.”

Yet, Harper, speaking from his experience, disagrees. “They don’t really sympathize with the students, which is their actual role. They’re supposed to be advocates of the students, to see your problem through your eyes, through your lens, and I really didn’t get that perception from them.”

Harper’s opinions about his experience counter Elmasry’s, outlining a certain discrepancy within either the SFDB’s running itself or Harper’s specific case. Elmasry, when speaking of the basic purposes of the SFDB, explained that “a lot of what the Board does is try to help people. A lot of what the Board hands out is fundamentally good for a student, we offer them help.”

Nonetheless, Harper’s takeaway from the disciplinary process was, as he put it, “private despair and public shame”.

In the end, Harper did not face a suspension and his offense did not carry consequential ramifications on his college acceptance.

Phillips has a very certain view of the Board. “The SFDB members are wise beyond their years and they think about cases and their consequences with really both a nuanced perspective of an individual, but also a recognition of the larger community,” he said.

Though Harper’s case seems to point toward the idea that the SFDB does not excel at their job, it would be erroneous to base an entire trend on this one case. In fact, as Richie’s (’14) case illustrates, the SFDB has been conducive in cultivating personal growth in some violators of the Code of Conduct.

Richie was taking a higher-level math test earlier this year, but he didn’t take it like the other students did. “I cheated on a math test. There was a set of formulas I was instructed to memorize for the test, and instead I saved them on my calculator,” Richie explained.

A common offense (as he described it), his teacher caught him and reported him to Chodl. Although going through the same process as Harper, Richie’s experience was different.

“I received a one-day suspension, on the record. I had to inform potential colleges of that punishment and my [leadership position] was revoked and I was put on probation till the end of the year,” he said. Responses to applications hadn’t been received then, Richie explains, so it is hard to gauge the exact damage his punishment had. He believes, though, “that my potential list of colleges would have been far different if I hadn’t cheated.”

The infraction was minor but, as SFDB Co-President Elias Vere-Nicoll (’14) explained, “cheating cases are punished completely differently every single time,” and the punishment is decided upon after a fair understanding of the situation.

Richie’s punishment for the cheating incident, he believes, and simultaneously clarifies to be understandable and fair, came in light of previous violations of the Code of Conduct as well as his holding a leadership role within the community. Richie said, “I think the punishment is a combination of both: If I had a clean slate, and had committed the act as a freshman, then my punishment would have been less severe.

“They made an example of me because they needed to, because I held a leadership position within the school. It was an important message to send to the community that leaders are held to a higher standard, even though they earned the positions they were given.”

The punishment possibly changed his post-graduation plans, but regardless of all emotional and personal implications, he looks at the SFDB ruling as “fully deserved, it was the correct punishment.”

At first Richie felt cheated by the school, but later “I told Phillips that I was in a fragile situation because I was applying to colleges; and he told me I wasn’t in a fragile situation because I was applying to colleges but because I cheated – and that’s 100 percent true.”

In summary, Richie feels that he ,“betrayed the community more than the community betrayed me.”

Richie, though today possibly facing new prospects and opportunities in his university education because of the consequences of his punishment, has walked away from the disciplinary process with a positive outlook.

The SFDB, in all proceedings, respects and cultivates a profound sense of anonymity in the sole effort to protect the students and various incidents that come before them. From this, it can be easy for students to speculate negatively on the actions and nature of the Board.

A negative reputation that has trailed the SFDB is that they are often bypassed in cases of more serious gravity because of the sole reason the administration want to handle it themselves. In fact, the Board is notified of most infractions of the Code of Conduct by the administration and the cases that do bypass the Board hold a legal implication.

“If a case might have some form of legal involvement further down the line, then [the administrators] don’t use the SFDB, the administrators deal with it using the precedent set by the SFDB,”  Vere-Nicoll explained.

For this reason, SFDB involvement in all student discipline matters is not a goal of the Board.

Current and future plans for the SFDB within the High School will be mainly centered around fighting against violations of academic integrity and cheating, Elmasry explained. Examples of this would be small-scale plagiarism, copying homework assignments, and cheating on tests.

“Last year we had a record number of cases [of cheating and other academic integrity offenses], we wanted to reduce the number of cases we had by letting kids know – continuously throughout the year – how the Code of Conduct works,” Elmasry explained.

Doing this was not a difficult task, but one that required steadfast attention throughout the year. The SFDB attended a few class meetings where they clearly delineated their purpose and how the Code of Conduct works. In summary, the SFDB Co-Presidents detailed that they would  explain what constituted an offense of plagiarism or cheating, or anything of the sort for that matter, so that new members of the high school community would not fall prey to ignorance.

And the numbers show that this approach has been expedient in the goal of reducing the number of cases presented to the SFDB. “This seems to have worked since we’ve had a lot less cases this year than last,” Vere-Nicoll said.

Though visionary in essence, this plan seems to have already reached a form of tangibility. Elmasry said that the SFDB often works with the National Honor Society (NHS) and other members of the community to help the students that come up before them. “We assign [the student offender] to the NHS and offer them tutoring if they are having studying problems, or we give them more information to their dean so that their dean can help them.”

Sometimes the guidance the SFDB organizes isn’t solely academic, it can also be in the effort of redressing emotional imbalances or mental disquiets. “We send them to [High School Counselor] Oliver and have them have sessions with her to talk about problems they’re having,” Elmasry said.

Having said that, Elmasry believes that a shortcoming of the SFDB that is out of the SFDB’s hands is the ability to get feedback. The Board often reaches out to students who have come before them to ask, in an informal setting, how their punishment has affected them and for any feedback. Unfortunately, Elmasry explained, “we don’t get enough feedback, and the students who have had a negative experience are the best feedback we can get, but they very rarely respond to us.”

Phillips, too, wants to address this issue. “[A goal of ours is] getting larger student involvement in the process; whether would it be appropriate to have a kind of town hall or a regular standing feedback where students can give feedback and their perception about the process.”

Harper, reflecting on his experience through the disciplinary process, has a message to share with students in regards to cheating. “It’s really not worth it. I had this small portion of an essay hanging over my head for two weeks. It wasn’t worth it for something which would have taken me a few seconds. They could have had massive ramifications,” Harper said.

For Phillips, the vision he embraces for the SFDB is one suitable for a scholastic environment. “At the end of the day we are fundamentally interested in both learning, whether the students have learned from the [disciplinary] process they went through, and protecting the individuals that undergo that very process.”

Richie, though, speaks both to the process and the students.

He believes “that after a student has gone through a punishment, and had time to reflect, he should be able to meet Chodl and inform him of the lessons he’s learned. The punishment can then be changed.”

For the students, on the other hand, he has advice inspired from his experience: Students progressing through high school should learn to appreciate and embody. “My record was completely clean until senior year, and I think what students must take away is that you shouldn’t ever take your foot off from the pedal. That you are always held accountable for your actions, no matter what stage of high school you are in.”