Western’s Honor Council Ambushed

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Tim Dodson
Tim Dodson

Albemarle County Public Schools snuffed out Western Albemarle High School’s Honor Council via an email to the school staff in a surprise move April 3. In a classic play from the news management handbook, designed to make a necessary announcement go unnoticed, it was released after school hours on the Friday before spring break.

But of course Western senior Tim Dodson noticed. He’s co-chair of the Honor Council with fellow senior Chance Masloff, who happened to be in Spain when the delete-honor move was executed. Both have served on the council four years.

“We were supposed to have a meeting in Mrs. Gardner’s room [She and math teacher Lani Hosa are the Council’s faculty sponsors.],” said Dodson. “The sponsors and [de facto acting principal] Dr. Domecq wanted to tell us something. At the last minute the meeting was cancelled.”

Dodson’s explanation for the wave-off was that the meeting didn’t happen because the council didn’t exist anymore and therefore it couldn’t meet. “They had shut down the Honor Council before we actually knew about it.”

“We hadn’t had trials for awhile, just one this year. But we had 20 cases last year and five the year before that,” Dodson said. The council hears cases where students are accused by teachers of cheating, plagiarism or “academic lies,” those being things like fake hall passes. It has the power to rule that a student should be given probation and have the accusation struck from his or her record after one year.

Elizabeth Andrews, who was a member of the first WAHS Honor Council, stands with her son, Patrick, who is a senior and member of the current Honor Council. Through an event organized on Facebook, students wore blue on Monday, April 13 to show their support for “for open decision-making in Albemarle County Public Schools, the restoration of the Honor Council and the 30-year-old honor system that protects our community through mutual trust, respect, and integrity.”
Elizabeth Andrews, who was a member of the first WAHS Honor Council, stands with her son, Patrick, who is a senior and member of the current Honor Council. Through an event organized on Facebook, students wore blue on Monday, April 13 to show their support for “for open decision-making in Albemarle County Public Schools, the restoration of the Honor Council and the 30-year-old honor system that protects our community through mutual trust, respect, and integrity.”

“The Honor Council has been a structure at Western for 30 years. We play an important role. So we started asking questions.” Dodson is also co-editor of The Western Hemisphere, the student newspaper.

“The sponsors didn’t really know about it,” he said. Dodson and Masloff next went to Domecq. “He said there were privacy issues raised by a parent who had complained.”

The next day came the email from Assistant Superintendent Matt Hass declaring that “a third-party contact prompted a legal review” by the County attorney’s office and the result was that the Council’s “peer jury procedure” had to stop.

Haas explained: “The Federal Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) generally prohibits the improper disclosure of personally identifiable information (student discipline records) derived from education records,” Haas’s message stated. “Honor Council proceedings risk that protected information will be improperly disclosed either inadvertently or deliberately.

“Many of the allegations that come before the Honor Council fall under the jurisdiction of administrators, especially in maintaining a safe and orderly environment for learning,” he continued. “Classroom management and disciplinary proceedings should not be delegated to a third party, regardless of the well intentions of that party.”

Further, “The Albemarle County School Board is the final arbiter of all disciplinary cases, and all four high schools in the county fall under the Board’s jurisdiction. It is improper in terms of procedural due process for one high school to have a substantially different disciplinary process that the other three, as all cases could end up with the Board.”

And finally: “Students accused of cheating are placed in a jeopardy of having to either submit to peer review or ‘plead guilty’ to avoid it and go before the administration for discipline with the premise that they are guilty already decided.”

Haas credited Western with a tradition of honor and integrity. “There is no need for the Honor Council to be disbanded. It is the particular practice of having students appear before the council acting as a jury to decide disciplinary measures, a role that should be managed by the administration, which should desist.”

So, Western can have a council, it just can’t do what it’s intended to do, or what it has been doing for 30 years. Call it a Potemkin council.

County legal staff also reviewed the Honor Council’s operations five years ago, Dodson noted, and then it was found to be sound and legitimate.

“Students and parents all sign non-disclosure documents [about the Honor Council] at the start of the school year,” explained Dodson. “There haven’t been any leaks. It’s that the other schools don’t have honor councils. The county said it’s a due process issue.”

Monticello High School did have an honor council for five years, but it was also shut down, and Albemarle High School students have suggested the establishment of one at their school, Dodson said.

“Thomas Jefferson High School and Langley High School in Fairfax County have honor councils, too. Ours is based on U.Va.’s system. We’re in compliance with FERPA as far as we’re concerned.

“We saw an issue that is something we really value. It shouldn’t be something that makes WAHS unique. It builds a community of trust.

“The county said administrators should be responsible for discipline and students should not be involved in behavioral issues. The seniors on the council were upset and infuriated. County administrators changed this policy because one complaint came in.

“Their entire decision had been made in secret—no student or parent or community input. Every student at Western signs on to the Honor Council at the beginning of the year. Students and their parents both sign the form. They are saying they agree.”

In the case of a trial, an accused student meets with an administrator first to determine what happened, Dodson explained. “Most complaints are dismissed because there is not enough evidence to prove cheating. But if there is, the student has several options. One, the student can take the administration’s punishment and that stays on their record. Two, if you go before the honor council, you can get a probation for a year and then it’s taken off your record. Freshmen and transfer students, who may not understand the honor system yet, can get probation from administrators. Third, if a student says he or she is innocent they can make their case to the council.”

The 12 council members are elected by the student body. One freshmen, two sophomores, three juniors and four seniors are elected, plus an alternate for each grade. Election is considered prestigious and those elected have a sense of solemn duty.

Trials are held during lunch.

“They’re very low key,” explained Dodson. “No one knows when the Honor Council meets but the people involved. The chair is a senior and leads the procedure, which is standardized. The council gets a copy of the assignment and what the student turned in. The student makes a statement. Most say they are sorry they cheated. An administrator explains the case and the accusation. Then the teacher explains. Then the student explains. We can take notes, but we can’t take the notes with us. The faculty advisors can ask questions.

“We try to put ourselves in the student’s position and evaluate the evidence. It’s to the student’s benefit to let us hear their case. The student and the teacher are dismissed from the room. We deliberate. If they pled guilty, we are debating probation. The faculty advisors help with precedents and the faculty perspective on the case.

“We vote on innocence or guilt and we vote on the punishment. Mostly we award probation, unless they don’t seem sorry and don’t take it seriously. We can also recommend lunch or after school detention or an essay related to cheating. We try to tailor it to the evidence. The administration enforces what we recommend. For the most part they are enforced. The administration has some latitude.

“If we find the student innocent, the case is dismissed. If they’re convicted when they plead innocent, we can’t give them probation and it goes on their record.

“We never discuss the case again and we don’t disclose anything. Sometimes students who are accused leak information because they are unhappy about the outcome.”

Dodson said his role at The Western Hemisphere keeps him current on student views. “I have my finger on the pulse. I know what’s going on.

“The student body for the most part is disappointed about how [the shut down] been handled,” Dodson said. “Some just don’t care. Students think the school is better with the Honor Council. But we aren’t a public presence. I think it’s a deterrent to cheating because you don’t want to let down your school or your community down.”

The day after Haas’s email, Dodson posted a blog announcement about it and called for the issue to be talked about in the open. “The county changed the school culture without consulting the school. People agreed with that in their reactions.

“There was almost a gag order about it with the faculty. They couldn’t meet or talk about it. Most faculty didn’t know about it until the blog post. WAHS doesn’t have a principal now so there is no one to advocate for us.

“We’re creating more excuses for cheating. I’ve heard cheating is going up since this happened. Cheating is a big issue because of the access to technology.”

The Friday after his blog post, Dodson was called to the principal’s office, where he found Haas. “He wanted to discuss the county’s perspective. The county attorney’s opinion was that it’s illegal.”

After spring break, the seniors decided they wanted to make a response. A Facebook group called Restore Honor at WAHS was formed and a protest day on which students would wear blue, a school color, was set for April 13, Thomas Jefferson’s birthday, to extend the point about honor. Students saw an historical connection. The goal was to challenge how the decision was made. “About one-sixth of students wore blue,” Dodson estimated. It got on the local TV news.

Dodson was bothered by Haas’s contention that the school board and other top administrators had not known about the Honor Council at Western. So he filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the school division on April 7 to see what their documents since 2005 show. When the central office got it, they informed Dodson that they wanted $357.74 to cover staff time to perform the FOIA search. Dodson raised money among students at Western. “We came up with small amounts. We raised it in a week.” He took an envelope with the exact amount in cash to the central office. School officials then asked for an extension of the deadline from May 1 to May 12.

Meanwhile Dodson met with two members of the U.Va. Honor Council to get their help. (Dodson is headed to U.Va. next fall.) U.Va. council vice chair Carolyn Herre told him she thought they could be in compliance with FERPA. “They say the FERPA argument is not persuasive. Other [high schools] have honor councils and they don’t see why Western can’t have one. They said maybe we need to do more FERPA training. They are willing to be a resource for us. They’re very willing to help. If there’s a problem with the FOIA request, I’ll be reaching out.

“County documents do mention the Honor Council in the Behavior Management Handbook,” he said. It’s been removed now from the county’s website, but Dodson contends that it show the school leaders knew about the Honor Council. “I don’t buy that the county didn’t know it was going on,” said Dodson. School Board member Eric Strucko has a child at Western. “He or his wife signed the form, so he should know,” observed Dodson.

“Schools make a big deal about ‘student ownership of learning,’ but they don’t want to give us that opportunity.

“The Tuesday after spring break we finally could meet in Mrs. Gardner’s room. Dr. Haas showed up. We weren’t prepared for that. The underclassmen didn’t really understand what was going on. [The county] assumes we will leak info. They see us as inherently guilty of this. There’s risk in any system. Why can’t students be trusted?

“Haas said he would have dealt with it as a handbook issue and taken it out over the summer.” Thus ending the council’s existence while students and parents weren’t paying attention.

“We want to get it in the Behavioral Management Handbook and make other schools consider having honor councils,” said Dodson. “Students should play a role in maintaining a safe, orderly environment. Why should we hold ourselves to lower ethical standards?”

He said the Western council has a few ideas above possible improvements to the system. One would be to have cheating cases first heard by a panel of three administrators, not just one. Another would be to give the administration the ability to award probation. Another would be to have the Honor Council consider cases without the student present and without knowledge of their name.

“But then they don’t get the benefit of our empathizing with them,” he said. “There are students who went before the council and they changed their ways and went on to prestigious universities. It can be a positive experience. Some students tell us it was cathartic. It can restore a student to the school community.”

The seniors on the council are pulling together documents to make their case that they will give to other students and the WAHS administration to take to the county. Meanwhile Dodson is waiting to see what documents the county produces in response to the FOIA request.

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