Every year around this time, students running for Disciplinary Committee (DC) Representative present platforms, many of which are clearly oriented towards tackling disciplinary unfairness.
The elections this past Wednesday were no different: candidates pledged to achieve more consistency, transparency, and student advocacy during the DC process. But although candidates call for more equitable discipline every year, student mistrust in the disciplinary process still persists.
According to last year’s State of the Academy survey, 78.04% of students believe that the school’s disciplinary system favors students of privileged backgrounds.
Furthermore, it seems to be common knowledge which clusters are the ‘harshest’ during the DC process, which dorms are easiest to break rules in, and which house counselors the ‘strictest.’ These all contribute to the idea that the disciplinary process is unfair and inconsistent.
We recognize that when discipling students, there is no avoiding unconscious bias. Every student’s DC process can be affected by relationships with their teachers, cluster dean, DC representative, and other members weighing in on the final decision. But both students and administrators should be more comfortable admitting that rules– from lights out to drug possession— are not applied equally, and thus, that rules alone don’t fix problems.
We understand that in order to run an institution such as Andover, guidelines must be in place. Because students are minors, the school is often stricter than what students might be subject to at a residential college or even at home regarding dorm sign-in, substances, and parietals. And, subjectivity is not always a problem. Giving house counselors, for example, the leisure to determine what rules and mechanisms of enforcement best suit their dorm is often good and sometimes encourages more effective guidelines of operation. However, when people feel that the disciplinary system is egregiously inequitable, rules become ineffective. When discipline is seen as sporadic, rules can’t successfully dissuade students from breaking them, and those punished only feel alienated.
Furthermore, there is no consistent written precedent for DC decisions, meaning that students in different clusters can get different punishments for nearly identical situations, which only aggravates students’ concerns about unnecessary bias. Our disciplinary system can drastically affect students lives, and yet, the perceived inconsistency and unjustified extremity of DC consequences can make students more hostile towards the administration, leading to increased rule violations. Students who do get ‘punished’ by the process don’t serve as incentive to stop violating rules; instead, they can become recognized examples of the ‘arbitrary’ nature of the disciplinary process.
There is no easy solution to this issue, but administrators can start by asking themselves some questions: in what non-vacuum space is the violation of rules taking place—in other words, while one ‘caught’ student sits in front of you, who is not being punished? Who is being punished ‘less’ or ‘more’? And if every student who has thus far committed a crime on campus were to turn themselves in tomorrow, what disciplinary measures would you take, and would those measures be consistent with the current network of rules?
These questions invite further ones– what is the intention of our current system of disciplinary consequence? to hold the recipient of said consequence as an example of what not to do for the rest of the student body? to try, to the best of our ability, to eradicate that rule-breaking as a whole? or to benefit the student at the heart of the issue?
If either of the former two, it’s time to question the way that we write rules themselves, in addition to the way that we enforce them. Student mistrust in the administration’s disciplinary system helps no one, and working to re-evaluate and perhaps reorient our Disciplinary Committee processes to be more consistent might be the first steps in rebranding rules as tools genuinely intended for the betterment of our student body.