Why I Left the Honor Council

by Will Slater
There’s a scene I like in Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. Clevinger, a soldier in this memorable squadron, is court martialed for sharing information with a fellow officer. Upon arriving before three superior officers, Clevinger is represented by the same man who is prosecuting and judging him. He is then asked a series of nonsensical and confusing questions, leading everyone to be even less clear on the truth than before. “Clevinger was guilty, of course, or he would not have been accused, and since the only way to prove it was to find him guilty, it was their patriotic duty to do so.”         
This scene, like the rest of the book, is a study in bureaucratic incompetence, in hopeless leadership and in preposterous, puzzling rules. Unsurprising then, that there is something familiar to me about the hearing illustrated in the book, as I was on the Honor Council. I served for one calendar year and by the end I saw the council for what it was: an unmitigated disaster of an organization that I could no longer be a part of, and as such I didn’t run for re-election.   
The first issue with the Honor Council is the very nature of its existence. The idea of students being in control of their own discipline is a noble one, and one that I respect. But, the school cannot offer up this idea of equality and proceed to spit on it. Everyone knows it too, that the Honor Council has no real power and that the administrators are the only deciders that mean anything at all. The Honor Council can’t even be called a figurehead, because it has neither real power nor the illusion of power.  It made no difference to me if the council had power or not how should I know more about discipline and teaching than Mr. Dunn or Mr. Coberlybut what really bothered me was the bogus promise that students were to be trusted with their own destinies. A ludicrous notion I now understand. The actual percentage of Honor Council decisions overturned by the administration was never given to me, but, based on “convicted” students I asked afterwards, the rate was comically high.  
Now on to my observations sitting and participating in on hearings. In my time on the council, I was rarely satisfied with decisions made. Many a cheating cases ended in punishments of having a talk with a teacher to ensure that the student understood that cheating is bad. Does this really make sense? Do people cheat because they don’t understand that cheating is wrong? Maybe to some, but to me, a sane man in an insane organization, certain punishments were just confounding. It wasn’t just cheating cases, though, when I found myself, along with the rest of the council, reaching arbitrary conclusions.
The Honor Council will say that the choices they make are based on precedent, but the relied upon precedent-setting decisions were just as arbitrary. There is indeed a handbook to fall back on, but in hearings it may as well be a coffee stained paper menu. Every now and then an obscure passage or rule would be read, but it was promptly and intently forgotten or disregarded. (What use do we have for rules? Riley Nelson is constantly going on about some loophole in the handbook that may very well exist, but he’s always ignored so who knows.)
Few know what goes on in a hearing and even fewer know why. The student in question comes into the hearing and presents their side of the story, which often includes an admission of guilt, and a well rehearsed statement of regret. Some are better at this lie than others, but I’m not complainingI always liked going to matinees. The council members live for a heartfelt apology, as if they were the ones that deserved to be apologized to. Without this, sentiment quickly spreads that the student deserves a harsher punishment. I remember a student who promised his innocence and was, of course, suspendedwe couldn’t find any other way to prove that he was lying. There is also a period for the council to ask clarifying questions and then a second period for more in depth, probing onesI forget what exactly they call this. Nobody could ever quite figure out the difference between these two types of questions, making the separateness of these sessions meaningless. The inquiries themselves were frequently worded in a confusing way, somewhat irrelevant to the case, unanswerable or my personal favorite, repeats of questions that had already been asked.
After this we used to sit and deliberate. A few people would say a lot, most would agree, and a couple would disagree but later come around because losing is no fun. Every now and then one of the teachers in the room made a blindingly obvious and empty statement that sent everyone into a cataclysmic conflict of their standing on the issue. As such, the devil’s advocate, despite admitting to working for the devil, often won. There are smart, well-meaning kids on the Honor Council, just as there are smart, well meaning teachers. This article isn’t about criticizing individuals, it’s about understanding an institutional failure. As a member of the council, I was guilty of many of the crimes described, but most of all not calling myself and others on our shortcomings. This is my attempt to make up for that lost opportunity, to now fix a broken thing and to apologize to the community because, in respect to the Honor Council, I failed you, your peers and teachers failed you, and the school has failed you.