Vague Honor Code Provision Risks Confusion

Cecelia Messbauer, Copy Editor

It’s the third bullet on the list of the Student Handbook’s examples of honor code violations. Clearly significant enough to be included on a list for which “a complete catalogue…is impossible,” it follows the specific but sensible rule against  tampering with smoke detectors. Except this provision is a bit more vague, defined as “being in the presence of an honor code violation.”

This raises some interesting, and potentially contentious, questions. What defines “in the presence?” Being in the wrong place at the wrong time is a common stroke of misfortune; no one can control who is near them and what is happening around them all the time. How are students supposed to avoid being in the presence of violations which are theoretically indefinite in number, as the existing list is specifically written on an “including, but not limited to” basis? How is this rule supposed to be interpreted when the context of any situation it could apply to is bound to be unique and probably complicated? Is a blanket policy of guilt by association a concept we as a community really wish to adhere to?

For the most part, no, according to Head of Upper School Chris Bielizna, who emphasizes that the code is meant to allow for thorough investigations of all those involved with incidents, with a focus on accommodating the nuances of relevant circumstances on a case by case basis. He says that “guilt by association” is meant to prevent willing accomplices in violations from getting off on technicalities, not to catch students who end up in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Even when students would appear to be culpable bystanders to a serious violation, there are multiple factors to consider that go against the assumption of guilt or complicate the administration of disciplinary action. An imbalance of power in a situation could hinder an individual’s ability to report or inhibit an incident, and fear could be an especially potent influence forcing someone “in the presence” to remain so. Bielizna says this is also taken into account, framing the rule as an “avenue to help students”  that applies “latitudes” of corrective action to deal with problems and which adjusts to individual students’ previous records and current circumstances.

Clearly, there is meant to be a spirit of nuance and thorough investigation behind the rule. But because the language of the honor code itself is so blunt and so devoid of any specific framework for this contextualization, it’s impossible for most students to know how it will be applied until the process begins, at which point the interpretation of the rule plays out at significantly high stakes.

Is there sense in coming down on active enablers of actions that compromise the safety and wellbeing of the community? Absolutely. But not nearly everyone “in the presence of an honor code violation” is an active enabler, and not everyone who stands by as a violation is committed has a viable way out of the situation. Students need to know that the honor code carries the expectation of accommodating these nuances. The process will not be foolproof, but the administration appears to be committed to a disciplinary process that eschews absolutes, and should consider taking steps to ensure that the language of the document that is available to the student body reflects that promise.