PA Responds To False Email With Forum

Last Thursday, more than 250 people packed into Ropes Salon and 200 more listened on WPAA, as students and faculty discussed the false Head of School Day email announcement sent to the PA community. At the hastily scheduled Philomathean Forum, students engaged in a tumultuous discussion with each other and with members of the administration, talking about the email and its possible ramifications for the school in the coming weeks. Yoni Gruskin ’07 and Jess White ’07, Co-Heads of Philomathean Society, introduced the forum, the third in a series of community discussions on honesty. Associate Head of School Rebecca Sykes, Associate Dean of Students Carlos Hoyt and Dean of Students Marlys Edwards represented the administration at the hastily arranged forum. Mrs. Sykes said that Head of School Barbara Chase was in meetings with the Trustees and regretted not being present. Steve Blackman ’07, outgoing Editor-in-Chief of The Phillipian, began the discussion by reading an editorial that was printed in the newspaper the following day. The editorial criticized the administration for “making a mountain out of a molehill,” and reminded everyone that the prank was “a joke.” These statements were met by applause from the audience and set an energetic tone that would be repeated throughout the forum. Mrs. Sykes then read aloud an email from Mrs. Chase, sent at 12:02 p.m. on Thursday, as an address to the community in response to Wednesday night’s events. Pete Smith ’07, one of the first students to speak, said that “collective punishment is not called for here” and that the email was “obviously a joke.” His statement summarized the points made by a majority of the students who spoke. Nate Flagg ’07 noted the intensity of the student response and said, “This is the administration’s opportunity to respond with humor and grace.” James Freeman ’07 pointed out the community could learn from the incident and said, “This could actually be a good thing…[we’ve recognized that] there is a fault with our email system.” Midway through the forum, Arjun Sharma ’07 received loud applause after he said, “Don’t you think it’s ridiculous that we have a forum…over a prank?” However, other students sided with the administration’s position that the false email was a “hoax,” as Mrs. Sykes called it, not a “prank” or “joke.” Molly Ozimek-Maier ’07 said, “I do think [the e-mail] is a big deal.” She also repeated a common opinion of the evening: “Head of School Day should not be cancelled.” Throughout the evening, students readdressed their concern that Head of School Day might be cancelled this winter. Early in the discussion, Mrs. Sykes tried to dispel these fears and said, “There has not been a decision to cancel Head of School Day for this term.” Several minutes later, to reinforce her point, Mrs. Sykes asked how the postponement, not the cancellation, of Head of School Day would hurt students. She said, “Today is January 25, and the term ends March 10,” and that Head of School Day would be somewhere between those dates. Another point of contention between students and administration was the severity of the false e-mail’s impact. Lucy Bidwell ’09 noted that most students only took a brief, 15-minute break from their studies because the “response to the hoax email was fired off fairly quickly.” Ethan Schmetzler ’07 pointed out that the e-mail said that Head of School Day would be January 24, 2006, a quick signal that the email was a fake. Mrs. Sykes polled the crowd, asking students how long the prank message affected them. Most students responded that their interruption was brief and that they quicly discovered the nature of the hoax. Mrs. Sykes said that there was a definite conclusion to the incident on Wednesday night. Many students realized quickly that the email was indeed false, and the administration was quick to reinforce that it was a fake with voicemail broadcasts and another email from Mrs. Chase. Mrs. Sykes said that the full impact of the email extended beyond campus, as a few students called their parents in distress, a few of whom then called the school to express frustration. Mrs. Sykes pointed out that the administration has a different perspective than the student body. Mrs. Sykes also discussed the response from within campus, mainly in the form of student replies to Mrs. Chase’s emails. Most were concerned or confused, but several were more accusatory. Mrs. Sykes said that when Mrs. Chase received replies from the false e-mail, Mrs. Chase assumed that her email account had been hacked. Mr. Hoyt asked, “What makes a joke funny?” He commented that the electronic part of this incident troubled him and that the issue was “more complex than just ‘[the administration doesn’t] have a sense of humor.’” Mrs. Sykes commented on the significance of Head of School Day and the distinction between a right and a privilege, saying, “Nobody is entitled to [Head of School Day]. It’s been a tradition.” Instructor in German Lisa Svec said, “Parts of [the email] were very clever…but only for a moment…[It was] very unfortunate [the sender] did not think that through.” After the forum, Mrs. Sykes said that Head of School Day was actually cancelled from its planned date of Friday the 26th due to the fake email and the ensuing reaction. In a later interview, Mrs. Sykes said that she was pleased with the communication between students and the administration, and she hoped that this link would continue to develop. Students agreed that the forum offered a refreshing discussion and allowed students to impart their opinions to those in charge. Sarah Beattie ’07 said, “I think [this forum] is really important to hear what people have to say.” But students continued to express their hope that Head of School Day would come soon, even after their incorrect expectations had not been realized. Directly after the Philo Forum, downstairs at the entrance to Lower Right, Ben Feng ’07 and Sam Gould ’07 sat patiently, holding signs that said, “Head of School Day…or Bust.” Although The Phillipian was unable to confirm by press time that Head of School Day would be today, students again expected Mrs. Chase to announce that Friday would be free of classes.