by Abe Asher
Throughout last week, the OES Upper School was put in an unprecedented position as multiple disciplinary cases — related and unrelated — came to the school’s attention.
The Discipline Committee heard a record seven cases — six about drug-related incidents — working through lunch and into evenings, and staying in session at one point past 8:00 PM.
On Wednesday morning, Upper School Head Jordan Elliott sent a lengthy letter to Upper School parents addressing the events of the past week. Students received a copy of the letter as well.
In it, Jordan wrote, “Through all of this, our core philosophy of helping students learn from their choices has remained our guiding principle. In my opportunities to talk to students, faculty, and parents, this has not always been clear to those who stand on the outside of the specific situations.”
But this message was buried in the midst of a 1,000+ word letter to parents that in turns blamed the dorm’s marijuana problem on “societal changes” like the legalization marijuana for adults in Oregon and trumpeted the success of various school programs to combat harassment and promote wellness.
It came as an apparent attempt by the head of the Upper School to thread the needle of taking an adversarial stance with students one-on-one, and broadcasting a message of support to the student body in the aftermath of disciplinary incidents.
Many students, however, aren’t buying that the main objectives remain education and support.
There exists an abnormal amount of animosity from students towards administration officials, partly because of a lack of face-time over the trying events of the last several months.
Much of the disconnect here, in fact, seems to center around how the investigations last week were handled — not the fact that punishment was handed down. In fact, most students who spoke to The Dig for this story respected the decisions that were ultimately made.
Said one student, “OES should definitely care about student drug use. I just wasn’t 100% satisfied with how they handled this problem. People are leaving because of this issue. People are scared. There is no trust between students and faculty in this community.”
Sahil V. told me, “I understand that the administration has to make tough decisions. This incident happened in the wake of criticism the administration came under for dealing with the previous incident this year, and I feel like the administration, in turn, used tactics here that shouldn’t be employed in the future.”
When asked whether the investigation was justified and fair, another junior replied, “Justified yes, fair not so much.”
“When I was interrogated — or interviewed — there was a lot of information that was misrepresented. There were misunderstandings between me and administration officials,” one student said.
“When I was in the room talking to people, I felt very disrespected at times,” he continued.
Students talked about being accused, sometimes en masse, engaging in illegal and threatening behavior. However, only students who had been named by two different people as being involved were interviewed by administration officials. The tone of those meetings, however, riled a number of students.
Said Sahil, “If you want someone to respond and cooperate, you can’t be so confrontational. When people feel defensive, they have a tendency to shut down.”
One major complaint was that students didn’t have true advocates in that meeting or in certain DC cases. “I think each student had the right to have a parent or advisor present during the interview process,” Sahil said, specifically referring to informational meetings with school officials.
Some parents of dorm students flew into Portland to engage in the process last week. Aside from in-school suspensions served in the business offices, punishments for dorm students ranged from loss of prefect status to loss of off-campus privileges, to loss of preferred room assignments.
On the flip-side, most students recognize that the school, once again, was put into a thankless and impossible situation.
Said one student, “I feel like there comes a point where enough is enough and the school has to take drastic action. As I told people, we’re teenagers: We don’t necessarily understand restorative justice, sometimes we just need a kick in the ass.”
All of the students who faced the most severe disciplinary action had run afoul of school rules in the past.
But morale at the school, both among students and faculty members outside of the Leadership Team, is at a low. Another student is leaving at the end of the semester, and more are considering departing at the end of the year.
That disconnect between the administration and the faculty and student body is a big — and fairly new — problem. The level of trust in top school officials now ranges mostly from indifference to dislike, where just several years ago, it mostly ranged the other way — from total trust to indifference.
At the same time, a trust deficit exists going the other way. Students involved in these issues broke school rules and the law, violating the trust placed in them by faculty members.
Privacy issues certainly handicap the school’s ability to level with students. The school has also had to navigate potential legal trouble, as well as outside inquiries into various developments.
“I know this is difficult, but they [the administration] need to get statements out as soon as possible. It feels like, in terms of rumors, OES concentrates on the victim instead of the perpetrators,” said one junior.
Victims, this junior said, “shouldn’t receive an award, but should be recognized by other students for standing up and doing what’s right.”
The student concluded, “We don’t get details, we’re just told not to rumor.” The irony, of course, is that rumor has certainly played its part in the school’s investigations.
Again, the school is bound by privacy laws and concerns. But it also shouldn’t accept that this gulf between the administration and student body is unavoidable in these cases. It’s not.
Towards the end of the letter, Jordan wrote, “We are doing similar work with the students at school, as recently as in Gathering and Chapel this week. I am confident that we can renew our community culture in the face of these challenges and grow stronger together.”
That Gathering and Chapel work, however, was limited, frequently vague, and gave little more than lip-service to the problems dividing the school.
This isn’t to say that the school could have done much better with the cards it was handed. The job that an exhausted and overworked Leadership Team had to do last week was incredibly difficult.
But the school’s leaders do need to recognize that this breakdown of trust is real, and do everything possible to work within the constraints of student privacy to start to rebuild that trust around campus.
That starts with putting the trust in students — especially older students — to handle tough information and have tough conversations while respecting confidentiality.
Perhaps it also starts with administration officials showing some of their own humanity and sharing the toll that this year has taken. From my own personal experience, I know that OES’ US administrative team is full of good intention and cares a great deal about what it does.
Many, however, do not have that personal experience and are much less sure.
It goes without saying that marijuana use exists at OES — as it does on most high school campuses — and it also goes without saying that a vast number of students do not consider marijuana use to be a serious problem.
Of marijuana use, one junior said, “It’s been on and off for a long time [in the dorms]. It’s a problem, because it’s not a very healthy and safe environment for other people — especially underclassmen to grow — and I appreciate the Upper School’s attention to this problem.”
“I realize it’s a pretty big deal. I feel like most people don’t really care. Marijuana is everywhere. The society and social trends should also take responsibility for some of that,” he said.
Reforming how the school treats drug and alcohol use — a Student Council priority well before the incidents of the past week — is a priority. Reforming the Discipline Committee may become a priority as well.
Senior rep Jared C. was happy with the work DC did last week, saying, “From a DC standpoint, with the information we were given, I thought we did an exceptional job,” but the structure of the DC for handling issues outside of plagiarism has come into question.
Thought is also being put into how the dorms will change moving forward — whether the dorm community will be considered home or school for disciplinary purposes. The dorm students and dorm parents were hit particularly hard by the outcomes of the last week.
Away from the official record, the Leadership Team also came away deeply unsatisfied with much of what happened during the disciplinary process. Many, it seems, have too much work in balancing different roles in the school. This year, one role has been conducting these investigations.
“In a public school, events like these would be handled by a police officer,” said Dean of Students and Dig Advisor Kara Tambellini. “But here, Deb and I have been cast into the role of investigators.”
It’s fair to say that the minority of people in the school — both faculty and students — with public school experience look at these disciplinary proceedings with a much different bent. If the events of the last week had happened in a public high school, the consequences most likely would have been much different.
Two weeks ago, Kara and counselor Amanda Weber-Welch met with the executive director of SARC — the Sexual Assault Resource Center — in an effort to bring a SARC presence into the school towards the end of the year.
The efforts to rebuild OES’ credibility and spirit will be difficult, and, for some, painful. But they must begin in earnest as soon as possible. There are too many good people at this school — students and faculty — to throw in the towel on harmony.