School Congress Sees Low Student Attendance

As Djavaneh Bierwirth ’14 hurried towards Samuel Phillips Hall for Monday’s School Congress, she looked forward to discussing with students and faculty members her vision of sexual education at Andover. She stepped into her randomly-assigned classroom, however, to find that she was one of only five students present, all of whom were Seniors.

“I think because it was a very self-selecting group, there wasn’t as much open discussion for teachers,” said Bierwirth. “The teacher-to-student ratio in most rooms was definitely more than two to one, and that is simply not conducive to discussion groups. Having less than four students in every room for every eight faculty turns it into less of a discussion and more of an interview or a Q&A.”

Bierwirth was one of many students who were surprised by the lack of students attendence at School Congress on Monday evening. Although intended to bring faculty and students together to discuss sexual education, this year’s School Congress saw the attendance of only 40 students, compared to the 125 to 150 faculty who attended, according to Junius Williams ’14, Co-President. Last spring’s School Congress drew 90 student attendees.

“[Some students] feel that this is a conversation that isn’t best had with faculty present. Most of the students who attended were upperclassmen,” said Williams. “Uppers and Seniors feel more confident and more comfortable talking about these things, having experienced the school more, having gotten to form relationships with teachers and adults.”

Williams continued, “I think that there was a more nuanced discussion than one might think initially, but again I do understand why people might perceive it as being one-sided due to the nature of the people who attended.”

Corinne Singer ’15, an Upper Representative, said, “Students who were truly interested attended so those with the strongest opinions attended, both negative and positive.” Singer acknowledged, however, that her room did not contain any arguments against an expanded sex education course at School Congress. Each attendee was assigned to one out of 14 rooms at random which would serve as their discussion groups for the night.

Singer also speculated that poor publicity and timing were responsible for low student attendance.

The discussion has had no direct influence on school policy thus far, but instead provided topics and ideas for faculty and Student Council to consider during future meetings, according to Williams. Proposed reforms to the sex education program included enhanced parietal talks, consistency among sex ed programs and clarifications for school policy.

“My sense was that students in the session felt like it certainly could be better, but there wasn’t a clear need for a different sexual education program,” said Head of School John Palfrey. “It can be quite uneven sometimes, so we could be more consistent.”

Many participants dwelled on the vagueness of the the Blue Book’s current policy on sex. It currently states that “sexual intimacy between students at Phillips Academy is inappropriate,” but does not dictate any specific repercussions for students engaging in sexual activity. 4

“I think there is a level of vagueness with respect to the current policy that needs to be clarified. I do think that we need to have a conversation about sex education, but before we get there, there has to be an examination of the policy,” said Williams.

Parietal talks, or yearly discussions within dorms about relationships prior to the beginning of room visits, were identified as inconsistent aspects of the sexual education curriculum that only generate further confusion among students.

“It can be difficult for math teachers and French teachers to be having these sorts of discussions without proper training,” said Raj Mundra, Pine Knoll Cluster Dean and Instructor in Biology.

“We agreed that it would be best to bring in sexual education professionals rather than putting the responsibility on proctors, prefects and house counselors, who aren’t trained or informed enough to have these conversations,” said Dan Wang ’14, a participant in the School Congress.

In order to create a more comprehensive dialogue about sex on campus, attendees stressed the importance of “high-level” discussions about sexuality.

“I think a really important tool in a sex-ed program is discussion, and ideally discussion amongst small, same-gender groups of students. Part of the issue on campus—and in the world at large—is that sex is such a taboo topic. I hope that students would become more comfortable discussing sex,” said Emma Kukielski ’15.

“I’m not so sure we do as good a job as we could of providing a safe space for talking about relationships. I think there is a lot of conversation about power dynamics about relationships that we could do more on,” said Palfrey.

However, all ideas face challenges in implementation, from taking up time in students’ schedules to organizing and executing consistent sex ed for students who enter after their Junior year.

“Uppers and Seniors should engage in conversations about sex, including sexual intimacy and relationships. There is no such program offered to [upperclassmen] students,” said Juan Pablo Villarreal ’15, a new Upper.

“Theoretically, you would have to make sacrifices in order to implement a rigorous sex ed program, and a lot of people aren’t willing to make those sacrifices when it comes from their teaching time, or if it means not doing a sport a certain term or changing the PACE curriculum,” said Rachel Murree ’14.

Carlos Hoyt, Associate Dean of Students, will compile and release transcriptions from all discussion groups to the Andover community. The ideas and concerns discussed at School Congress will be evaluated in future faculty and student council meetings as Andover reevaluates its sex education program.