Looking Ahead

by Thomas Hochman

Last year wasn’t easy.

Anyone who spent time in the Upper School on days when the shades were down on the Head’s office windows can tell you there was a palpable feeling of unrest as the school year dragged on and disciplinary issues piled up. A lack of communication between the administration and the student body allowed a rift to form, and rumors caused further confusion.

When the year drew to a close, the Upper School heaved a collective sigh of relief, and we were able to put one of the trickier years in OES’ recent history to bed.

“Last year turned the school inside out. It was really difficult — unprecedented in its scope, scale, and complexity. There was a lot of misinformation about why and how things happened, and there were lots of opinions about the fairness of the disciplinary action. It was all very sudden. Summer does help, but the experience [of last year] does not seem like one of the past — it’s the same families and the same faculty members who we are working through this with. It all feels very present,” explains Deb Walsh, Dean of Students.

“For me, last year’s story is one of loss – we lost so many members of the school, and each situation for the students’ leaving was confidential — every single one,” she continues.

The perspectives of those not directly involved differ greatly. The faculty, staff, and student body were faced with widely varying degrees of involvement with last years’ events, so while some were directly affected, new students and the class of 2020 can only listen to the stories.

“Almost a third of the students [in the Upper School now] are new, so they don’t have the experience of last year,” says upper school interim head Corbet Clark.

Naturally, when an experience is vastly different for each person, a school-wide discussion moving forward becomes a tricky one to have. This divide does not escape the Leadership Team, as they continue to consider various possibilities for reflection and conversation.

“Everyone processes these emotionally trying conversations differently,” says Deb. “I have had conversations with people whom have said that discussing what happened last year could reopen wounds. It’s not such a simple proposition as saying that we can have a free open conversation. I don’t necessarily have the answer to exactly how to talk about last year yet.”

“There was a time when I thought that it was important to name some of the things that happened, but in the limited conversations that I have had, the reception (to that idea) was not always positive. That is in no way to say that these people don’t care about what happened, it’s just a tough thing to remember,” Deb explains.

“A lot of people who had to deal with these situations were drained by this, and it was painful for them. This also includes some members of the student body. Lots of faculty were not directly impacted because of our attempts to retain confidentiality. The same goes for the students. It is incredibly hard to have a conversation that brings together all of those experiences,” adds Corbet.

Many emotional aspects of last year remain too close to face so soon. But the Leadership Team has partnered with Policy Board to get the ball rolling with reworking some of the policy around these issues.

“The Leadership Team is working to help faculty members in periods of intense student-support need cope with everything that is going on. We added Dana Mosher Lewis (the current faculty Chair of the Discipline Committee) to the Leadership Team, and that will help to increase vigilance in working more closely with Discipline Committee,” says Deb.

“We also want to work on public announcements to students. The situations are always nuanced, and each one has to be announced differently when talking to students, whether it be in gathering or in other settings,” Deb continued. “We are also working on changing our programming in terms of handling drug and alcohol related issues.”

Corbet added that, “The harassment training last Friday showed that we all want to be on the same page about last year’s concerns. We need to talk more as a community about relationships and what is appropriate.”

“And that’s not to say that we haven’t always had programming for student safety, relationships, and drugs in the past,” Deb added, “but last year certainly has had an effect. The good news is that we are more ready to adjust than ever.”

For the time being, all that is clear is that it’s unclear how best to move forward. To organize broad conversations might be perceived as opening wounds just beginning to heal, and it may feel contrived to try to orchestrate a conversation best had one-on-one as the school year progresses.

But at OES, a place with such a powerful connection to the events on Mount Hood 30 years ago, we as a community have a hard time moving on. To not encourage conversation might continue an unfortunate history we have at OES of struggling to reconcile with our past.

So it is sure to be an interesting year, and only time will tell where it takes us.

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