Forecaster Forum: Criticism of Yarmouth Honor Code is off target

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Last week, Michael Waxman made several assertions about the appropriate role of schools in student’s lives and Yarmouth’s Extracurricular Honor Code. His central point – that schools are not parents and should not be the primary source of discipline for our children – was right on the money.

But he seriously missed the mark when he suggested that the schools should have no role in working with parents to create a healthy and structured environment and encourage good choices by our children.

And his claim that Yarmouth’s Core Values have only a fleeting influence on our students could not be further from the truth. Year after year, the young adults graduating from the Yarmouth school system demonstrate maturity and personal responsibility beyond their years, based, in large part, on the values learned in our schools. Nonetheless, the extent of the schools’ involvement in conduct and discipline is a fair topic for discussion. We welcome his and the community’s views on these issues.

First, however, the citizens of Yarmouth should understand that the Honor Code is not unconstitutional. Courts have consistently upheld the authority of school districts to enact honor codes – some with more stringent provisions than Yarmouth’s. The law is well settled. Yarmouth’s code is constitutional. Moreover, the administrators who apply it do so judiciously and respectfully.

Second, Waxman’s assertion that the code is a “power grab” by the schools is simply incorrect. The code was enacted with substantial input from parents and support from the community. Like the U.S. Constitution, it is a dynamic document. The terms and its application are regularly reviewed – with full opportunity for parental input – to assure that they are current and, to the maximum extent possible, reflect a consensus of the community’s sentiments.

Not surprisingly, there are widely divergent views about the code. Some believe it is not tough enough and consequences for violations should be more severe. Others, like Waxman, apparently believe there should be no consequences in the school community for illegal or other inappropriate conduct. There are no right or wrong answers to these questions and sometimes finding the right balance is difficult. To date, however, there can be no serious doubt that the overwhelming consensus of Yarmouth parents is that there should be some rules of conduct for students who participate in extracurricular activities and some consequences for violating those standards.

Waxman challenges a provision of the code that delegates discretion to school administrators to assess student behavior that might not be specifically prohibited. He suggests that it grants too much discretion. However, this kind of discretion is not unusual or unique. Indeed, as a practicing attorney, Waxman has taken an oath under Maine’s Rules of Professional Conduct to conform his conduct to that expected of lawyers. His commitment is no different than the one established for our students. We ask and, indeed expect, that they will be responsible and do the right thing; just as the legal profession expects its members to do the same.

Waxman posits that the founding fathers would object to the code. Interestingly, the task of devising an honor code is not dissimilar from the issues faced by the drafters of the Constitution. Some of those attending the Constitutional Convention argued for fewer personal freedoms and a stronger government, while others argued for robust guarantees of personal rights and a weaker government. The Constitution and Bill of Rights represent a compromise of these views that ingeniously empowered government, yet established ideals of personal freedoms in a way that left room for interpretation.

While we don’t have a Thomas Jefferson to help us write our code, we try to follow the same thesis – to craft a code that expresses the consensus of the community’s views and establishes a framework for assessing appropriate conduct. We do not doubt that the code can be improved and will continue to work to do so. We are hopeful that Waxman will work with us, not against us, in that effort.

Finally, we agree that dealing with code issues is not the best use of administrators’ time. In fact, because of the difficult financial times, we have increased their workload; their plates are very full. Every hour that they spend (and every dollar that we, the taxpayers, spend) enforcing the code or defending it from spurious claims is an hour (and a dollar) that is not being devoted to maintaining the high quality of educational opportunities for our students.

David P. Ray is chairman of the Yarmouth School Committee.