Voice of the Forum: Honor Council


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The idea for Honor Council was announced about a year ago and it sounded like a stark departure from the Disciplinary Committee. But a year later many students don’t view the Honor Council any differently than they viewed the Disciplinary Committee. It would even be hard to say point out any definitive departures from the DC. How could a system that is supposed to be completely opposite of DC end up being the same? It all comes down to execution. As with anything, there are growing pains that go along with being new and different. In theory, Honor Council is based on transparency, open-communication, and a broad range of opinions, but in practice Honor Council has often failed to hold up those principles.

Many still believe that the Honor Council’s main role in the school is to hand out punishment. Students only see the Honor Council when two members – their peers – stand up at gathering to discuss rule infractions and the resulting punishments. There is rarely any discussion about ethics besides the implied ethical message that comes with the punishments: cheating is wrong and it will get you a two-day in-school suspension, says the Honor Council. Not that their punishments are wrong or unfair, but one of the original tenets of Honor Council—from their own Charge—was that they will “uphold, communicate, and celebrate the values of Latin’s community through council policy, programming and procedures.”

Only one of those three things has been occurring; they have upheld the values of the school through punishment. The other two – communication about and celebration of Latin’s values – have remained stagnant. Which begs the question, what is being accomplished here anyway? Is Honor Council seeking to serve justice or is it seeking to give fair punishments while promoting good ethics to the school? If the latter is the case, then punishment must be split from ethics because, in practice, they should not be together. If they are together then someone will necessarily be used as a means to an end—a negative example that promotes positive ethics by saying,  “don’t be this guy.” This is not a productive scenario. The moment a group is perceived as a punisher is the moment it ceases to be a safe space to talk about ethics and honor. To teach ethics requires people to be vulnerable: they must be able to say “this act of mine was good, this other act of mine was bad”; experience is the only way a person can distinguish between good and bad. But when a group, society or government attaches negative consequences to that person’s bad actions, it makes it hard for the person to admit they were wrong because to do so means to accept the consequences. If the Honor Council wishes to promote ethics, then it shouldn’t also determine punishments: let students be vulnerable and let them admit their mistakes without repercussions.

It shouldn’t be the Honor Council’s job to punish, anyway. Why must an infraction become an all-school affair? We are part of a community that agrees on a set of fair rules to be governed by a determining body (i.e. the administration). We give our freedom up to the administration when we sign “the social contract”: we relinquish the right to show up to wearing t-shirts with profanity or to plagiarize. These things aren’t illegal, but we have agreed that they are wrong and we have agreed to let the administration monitor these rules. It is the administration, then, that should be dealing with rule infractions; we gave our freedom to them when we signed that invisible social contract. So if we try to take back those freedoms, isn’t it the administration’s job to reel us in, to give a punishment? Discipline must only be between the rule breaker and the administration.

Of course, the administration doesn’t always see eye-to-eye with students and that’s where the students on Honor Council should come in, as a bridge between students and administration about ethics. Say a student gets caught for smoking marijuana. The administration might say that’s a very bad offense, but they should ask the Honor Council, “Do think this is as bad as we think this is?” Without a name attached, just a blank hypothetical. And the Honor Council students might respond, “No, we don’t think it is as bad as you think, administration. Marijuana is becoming a less serious offense around the country and we are living in a world that is becoming more and more desensitized to its stigma.” That should be the Honor Council’s only role in discipline: to put offenses in context for the administration. Making punishment into court cases (the system the Honor Council uses now) makes students feel like justice has been done. Does learning of a murder teach us ethics? Does it teach us that killing is bad? It only teaches us that we should not do it because there are consequences for it. The only way to teach “thou shall not kill” is to teach morality, “we should do things that make ourselves and others feel good, and not do things that make ourselves and others feel bad.”

The Honor Council should also try to increase its visibility in the school. If the goal is to imbed consciousness of ethics into every corner of the school, then the Honor Council must find a way to increase participation. The way it stands now, students flee at any mention of the Honor Council. It holds open meetings once a month, but few students ever show up. How can the Honor Council be expected to create a fair code of ethics if it’s not getting any input from student? There is a link on their RomanNet page where students can send in anonymous questions, but no one has used it yet. It’s not just Honor Council’s job to engage students. It’s a two way street: students need to take part in the system and, right now, they’re not. It was set up for student participation, on the basis that students have the chance to voice their opinion of right and wrong. Eugene Gorleku had the original idea to keep term limits to 1 or 2 months, keeping the students fresh with new faces and new opinions filtering in. That way, more people participate. And instead of an election, it should be a lottery to determine who serves. A lottery will increase the diversity of opinions on the Honor Council; after all, an ethical code is only as strong as its most immoral adherent.

The Honor Council has had its successes, though, namely last year when the word “fag” was written on the wall of a bathroom stall. Teachers gathered on stage to tell why they were troubled by the use of the word, and they shared stories from their hearts; they made students understand that the word “fag” had emotional implications. And since then, very few people ever say the word “fag.” It was a success. And the mystery of it all? No one knows who did it. Honor Council did all that without even knowing who wrote it. It’s not a coincidence that Honor Council’s most successful action to date was a time when no punishment was given. No one had to be made an example of. This is the Honor Council that the school needs more of.

The Honor Council has the potential to be the most influential agent for positive change at Latin. Mr. Stroup, a teacher on the committee, said that his personal goal for the Honor Council is to “imbed the discussion of ethics and Honor throughout everything we do at Latin, sports, social events, our entire culture.” It’s a reasonable goal. We, as Latin students, want to live in a society where there is a difference between good and bad, where people are always mindful of “the right thing.” Even if the right thing isn’t always obvious or easy, Honor Council can unearth it for the students. We want to live in a just, fair, moral society, where there is a common definition of good ethics. Honor Council can get us there; it’ll just take a few tweaks.

*Note: The Honor Council will be having an open meeting on Friday at 7:30 AM in room 411. They will be discussing goals for the semester and will be brainstorming ways to better incorporate Honor Council in the community. They need student voices and are hoping that YOU (yes, you, the reader) show up!

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