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On a campus of just over 500 students, it’s easy to learn a lot about your peers. We know most everyone’s name and can often recall random facts about a person as they walk by us on our way to class. While there are definite perks to living in a close-knit community, being at Prin still comes with certain challenges. Gossip, for instance, is an issue we face daily. There’s a lot of “hearing through the grapevine” and little birdies telling things to everyone all over this campus. And, for many of us, the temptation to pass along every scrap of information we hear has been exacerbated by a slew of suspensions and Community Board cases this quarter.
On Thursday of Week 8, community members were invited to attend a Quiet Time meeting in the Chapel to address and dispel rumors about recent administrative activity and the seeming trend toward formal discipline. In a brief address from Student Body Presidents Laura Buchanan and Ron Meyer, both spoke to the importance of compassion and communication between students. According to Buchanan: “We talk a lot about judgment and judging one another – we’re in a small community – but the most important thing we can do to help one another is to be compassionate and to be constantly working to support and uphold one another…”
The theme of judgment remained constant throughout the meeting. At one point, Meyer added: “None of us can throw stones at each other. We’ve all had some sort of struggle with materiality in our lives. That’s not the point. The point is that we should discuss the problems we’re having on this campus.”
Junior Bekah Charlston, next year’s Student Body Vice President, called upon all Principians, especially student leaders (i.e. team captains, RAs and house presidents) to take a stand when it comes to Principia’s policies. Charlston added: “However, holding each other accountable doesn’t mean condemning one another for our actions.”
College President Jonathan Palmer shared statistics about the number of cases that have gone through Restorative Justice and Community Board this quarter compared to previous years at Principia. Dr. Palmer added: “This has been a unique academic term filled with challenges and difficult decisions.” He also went on to acknowledge the progress this community has experienced in the months since the last community meeting in January of this year.
Responding to a question about the perceived increase in disciplinary cases on campus, Residence Director Josh Sprague said, “If you look at the numbers – this year compared to last year – the overall numbers aren’t that different.”
Freshman Housing Director Joy Booth added: “[This quarter] it’s just kind of come in a concentrated group, for some reason.”
It seems unnecessary to focus on the individual people who have recently been suspended, but several cases have been brought forward and resolved in the last few weeks of this quarter. Several students on campus have a friend or classmate who is no longer enrolled at Principia, which makes the problem impossible to ignore.
As much confusion as there sometimes seems to be around disciplinary process, it’s really fairly simple. In short, a student is eligible for Restorative Justice if he or she commits an offense without ever having been previously reported to OSL. In Restorative Justice, a policy violation is worked out between the person bringing a case forward and the student being brought forward, as well as with a circle of community members who may have been affected by the behavior in question. If a student goes through Restorative Justice and is reported a second time, their case would automatically proceed to Community Board, where a suspension could potentially be recommended. More information about both processes is available in the Blue Pages online.
Still, it’s important to understand that Restorative Justice isn’t a “get-out-of-jail free card” of sorts. According to Sprague: “People assume that if they mess up … they automatically get to go to Restorative Justice. And that’s not the case. There are several qualifications that have to be met in order to go to Restorative Justice, one of which is that both parties have to agree that that’s the way they want to go.”
While the steps of formal discipline are simple enough to process and understand, sometimes logic is difficult to come to grips with. Overall, the process seems to become a lot more complex when you factor in all the emotion that often surrounds formal discipline. Though most students understand that they – or a friend, roommate, acquaintance – have broken the Code, it’s not an easy thing to accept an unfavorable resolution once it has been reached.
Sprague acknowledged the difficulty associated with the aftermath of a challenging case in the following way: “It’s difficult to separate the emotion from what actually happened, and so that it makes it harder … for people to understand, somehow. I completely get that.” Sprague went on to explain that we often process things very differently through either a rational or emotional perspective.
Although Community Board must operate under a fairly strict procedure, both Booth and Sprague firmly stated that every decision is made with a loving motive. Sprague quoted a passage in Education at the Principia, which reads: “No matter how annoying, how resentful, how malicious the error may be in its manifestations, and how necessary it may be to deal with it externally in the severest way … our attitude toward the person should be one of tenderness and love” (EAP 18). Dr. Palmer read the same passage aloud at the Week 8 community meeting.
Sprague explained that this quote is especially meaningful to him in cases of formal discipline because: “Even while [students are] going through what – to them – is just a huge trial in their [lives], [in] their contact with us, they should feel that tenderness and love.”
Both Sprague and Booth made it clear that Community Board members – two students and two community members per hearing – work to separate behavior from personality in every individual case. According to Sprague, the primary goal of every case is to help a student see that a suspension doesn’t level a character judgment on individual students. At another moment in the conversation, Booth explained: “We believe that everyone is good. Everyone wants to do good.”
An anonymous student member of Community Board said, “[In] a lot of the cases that I’ve been in … people brought forward have said, ‘I just wish that someone had reached out to me. I just wish that someone had talked to me.’”
Later, this student added that if members of our community were more willing to approach one another before formal discipline was implemented, our sense of “community spirit” would likely be a lot better.
Booth added that communication is a very important part of any case of formal discipline. She explained: “We thoroughly describe to anyone who’s in the process what’s going to happen in our initial interview with them, and we kind of lay out the different options.” Booth added that anyone in OSL is happy to explain the process further to anyone who may just be curious about how decisions are reached and how issues are handled in formal discipline.