“The story you are about to see is true. The names have been changed to protect the innocent.”
I am old enough to remember those as the opening lines from the 1950s and 60s television show Dragnet. Dragnet was an ancestor of police procedurals such as CSI and Law and Order, only without episodes being available on cable any time of the day or night. I remember Dragnet for three reasons. The main character, Detective Joe Friday, wanted “just the facts.” Jack Webb, who played Friday, walked without moving his arms. And the names were changed to protect the innocent. I always wondered whether names should be changed to protect the guilty as well.
Last week there was an interesting discussion on the e-list maintained by the Association of College Counselors in Independent Schools, better known by its acronym, ACCIS. The Director of College Counseling at an independent school (I have omitted names to protect both the innocent and the guilty) asked for help with a discipline case involving the daughter of not one, but two, trustees. The daughter had been suspended for alcohol and marijuana use while on a school trip, and the parents are worried that the incident might ruin the daughter’s chances of getting into schools like Stanford and the Ivies. The counselor asked colleagues to share experiences and wisdom.
The query and the responses it generated raise a number of interesting questions. Is having two spouses serving on a school’s board at the same time a good idea? Should children of board members get special treatment? Are kids allowed to make—and be forgiven for—mistakes? Has the volume of applications at highly-selective institutions changed the admissions process such that it is designed to find reasons to deny a student rather than reasons to admit?
Disciplinary incidents are the Scylla and college admission the Charybdis of working in an independent school. Navigating between the two is an adventure inspired at times by Homer and at other times by Homer Simpson. In each case a school must walk a tightrope, balancing what is best for the individual with what is best for the community. The goal is teaching hard lessons by holding a student accountable but making sure there is a safety net so the consequences aren’t catastrophic.
The most catastrophic of those consequences is losing acceptance to college. Parents in the heat of a disciplinary situation are perfectly willing for their child to be punished, but want to withhold information from going to colleges. One mother argued in a masterful parsing of words that her son wasn’t really suspended from school because he had received an in-school suspension. Discipline cases force a school to examine the consonance between mission and procedures. How important is the college preparation/college placement part of a school’s mission? Is discipline purely internal, or is there an obligation to inform colleges of offenses, even recognizing that independent school students are suspended for offenses that would be ignored or even laughed at in other school settings?
I have been fortunate to spend most of my career at a school that is established, that is secure enough in its mission to have expelled two different Board members’ children on the same day, and that balances accountability and compassion. We have a strong honor code, and a consequence of the code is that students are obligated to report disciplinary incidents on college applications. In the case of an honor or disciplinary offense resulting in suspension committed after applications have already been submitted, we require students to contact the college, allowing us to come behind them with expressions of support. Most of the offenses committed by my students fall into the “stupid” category rather than the “evil” category, but I can’t think of a case where a student lost an opportunity because of the offense.
They are more likely to get in trouble because of their explanation than the offense itself. Several years ago, a student was suspended after being caught with a beer in a car at the Junior-Senior formal dance. He neglected to report the offense to his first-choice college, where he was on the Wait List, despite the fact that the college explicitly required. Once admitted off the Wait List, we made him contact the Admissions Office. The Dean of Admission required him to come to campus to explain the suspension. He told the Dean that he had the beer because he hadn’t planned to go to the dance. The Dean asked if he didn’t look out of place at the dance, given that everyone else was wearing a tux. “I was wearing a tux,” the student admitted, leading the dean to ask if the student normally drove around the West End of Richmond on a Friday night wearing a tux. The student ultimately was admitted, but the explanation raised far more serious questions than the offense.
The reasons for revealing disciplinary information to colleges is both philosophical and practical. The philosopher W.D. Ross argued that an individual should determine his ethical duty in a given case by first identifying prima facie (at first glance) duties. Prima facie duties arise out of relationships. As a counselor, I have a number of prima facie duties in a discipline case that arise out of various roles and relationships that I find myself in. My relationship to the student is one of those, but I also have obligations to my school, to my profession, to my own personal sense of right and wrong, and to the colleges with whom I have a relationship. Ross doesn’t tell you what your duty is, just how to weigh the various prima facie duties present. From a practical standpoint, there is potential damage to the student, the school, and future applicants if a school looks to be withholding information, and in the age of social media it is possible and maybe even likely that a college will hear about disciplinary offenses.
The fact that I am old enough to remember Dragnet probably marks me as a dinosaur professionally, and I’m okay with that. I want to be part of a profession where relationships and trust are valued, where we believe in being honest and transparent, and where we are not afraid to let kids grow from the mistakes they may make. I’m grateful for my colleagues on the college side who allow me to keep the faith.