For over 10 years, juniors in former English teacher Patricia Fels’ AP Language and Composition class wrote proposal essays in which they argued for a change in their communities.
Fels said that while many essays in past years focused on topics outside Country Day, such as the administration of a charity league or sports club, last year more essays focused on school issues.
Fels encouraged students to give their essays to someone in charge of the program they were writing about.
“In the real world, nobody would go write a proposal just for the sake of writing,” she said. “You write a proposal to get to effect change.”
And last year, some students followed her advice.
Seniors Gabi Alvarado, Jack Christian and Mehdi Lacombe brought their papers to school administrators.
Fels said that, although rare, this wasn’t the first time a proposal essay was discussed with school administrators; a few years ago, the Board of Trustees discussed a proposal essay suggesting the addition of a crosswalk with automatic pedestrian lights at the intersection of Munroe Street and Latham Drive. However, according to Fels, the city lacked the funds to add the pedestrian lights, and it wasn’t a priority.
Alvarado wrote about adding an ethnic studies course to the high school curriculum (see pages one, six and seven).
Lacombe’s proposal, which would apply only to juniors and seniors, would allow students to go off campus and either eat at a nearby restaurant or bring food back to campus if they had a free period before or after lunch. (A similar policy was in place 25 years ago, before the school expanded its acreage.)
Students would still be prohibited from driving their peers off campus, a violation of Country Day’s handbook.
To avoid possible lawsuits, a waiver would have to be signed by the parents of these students.
Under Lacombe’s proposal, classrooms would be less crowded during bad weather, and the staff would have to provide fewer lunches.
However, head of high school Brooke Wells said he was concerned about students crossing Munroe Street and their safety in general.
“It was pretty obvious that it wasn’t really going to go any further from there, so I just kind of dropped it,” Lacombe said.
But the idea is still popular with students. In a Dec. 18 Octagon poll of 130 students, 33 percent said only juniors and seniors should be allowed to leave campus by themselves during their long free period, lunch or elective, and 65 percent said all students should be able to go.
Meanwhile, fifty-eight percent of students said juniors and seniors should be able to leave campus at any time, and 28 percent said that all students should be able to do so.
Fels said upperclassmen should be able to leave because it teaches them independence and survival skills.
“They’re close to really living on their own,” she said.
Freshman Jesus Aispuro said leaving campus is a good opportunity to relax but added, “Parents should be informed that their child is leaving; they just shouldn’t need their permission to go.”
But some students favor the current policy.
“Parents should know where you are, because (students are) minors, and the crosswalk (on Munroe) can be very dangerous,” junior Emme Bogetich said.
Junior Maddie Woo agreed.
“Safety is more important than want,” she said.
Meanwhile, Christian wrote his proposal on student press freedom.
Under the 1988 Supreme Court case Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, a public school administrator can censor an article only if it is “reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical concerns.”
But in private schools, administrators can legally censor any article, as no First Amendment protections exist.
As head of school, Lee Thomsen holds power to censor the Octagon.
Christian argued that this is a problem because when making decisions, Thomsen will always have the school’s image and business interests in mind, which can conflict with the Octagon’s interests.
To resolve this issue, Christian wrote that the school should create an independent board that would represent the differing sides of the community.
The board would be comprised of one member each from the Board of Trustees, faculty, staff, administration, teachers, students, parents and alumni.
This group of eight would create a reasonable set of rules and guidelines for the Octagon and administration to follow.
An article would be allowed to be censored only if it contained material that was obscene to minors, libelous or severely disruptive to school activities.
According to Christian, three instances of censorship spurred his essay. They concerned the former school photographer, the school’s international student program and the death of pre-K teaching assistant Ariyana Jones.
Thomsen said he was given the essay at a meeting; then, Christian said he reached out to Thomsen to arrange a meeting with the editors-in-chief to discuss his proposal.
They ultimately had two meetings — during which the other four editors-in-chiefs, head of high school Brooke Wells and former adviser Emily Eustace were present — in May.
Christian said they didn’t discuss the proposal much; the parties had more of a conversation about the future of the Octagon and how relations can improve.
“We never really delved into the ins and outs about the board, my proposed censorship agreement or exactly what my proposal said,” Christian said.
Christian said that for the rest of the school year, he never heard anything; although another meeting was planned, it fell through.
By summer, Christian said the editors-in-chief decided they should try to have another meeting. That’s when they received an email from Tim Grieve, then the vice president of news for The McClatchy Co. and a former Octagon editor-in-chief.
Grieve was one of Christian’s sources for his proposal essay, and according to Christian, Grieve wanted Christian to keep him updated.
Thus, Christian talked to him at the end of the year to say little progress had been made regarding the proposal.
Furthermore, on June 1, 2018, independently from Christian’s proposal, former editors and allies of the Octagon emailed the Board of Trustees.
The letter discussed the importance of the Octagon and its impact on the community, according to Christian, and asked the board to consider the paper as a more valued organization that should be funded adequately and have autonomy from the administration.
In response, Thomsen wrote on June 11, 2018, that “the administration has not directed, nor will we direct, any change in The Octagon’s long-standing editorial policy.”
The presence of some editorial control reflects that the reporters are minors “who are learning and growing in their judgment,” Thomsen said.
Thomsen added that the Octagon should avoid publishing material that is harmful to the school or members of the school community, and that it is appropriate for an adult to serve that role.
In a July 5 email to Wells, incoming editors-in-chief Christian, Lacombe, Allison Zhang, Mohini Rye and Chardonnay Needler and Eustace, Thomsen said the school has no plans to change the wording of the Octagon’s editorial statement.
Still, Christian said his general feeling after that email was that “things would be OK” and that Eustace would act as an “intermediary” between the students and the administration.
“But in a sense, that wasn’t a solution that we wanted,” Christian said. “We wanted a solution that would last for a long time — a solution that was in writing — because currently we deal with each incident as it comes up.
“We wanted clarity, so there’s more of a protocol instead of us being so blindsided sometimes.”
However, Thomsen said that each of the situations in which the Octagon was censored was so complicated and nuanced that it would be difficult to create a policy.
Christian said he doubts he will pursue the matter.
“I think that we’re kind of at a good point with everything that’s happening,” he said. “We haven’t really had any problems, and we’re working well with the administration and (adviser Paul) Bauman.”
However, Thomsen said that because of the “instability” in the adviser position, he might have a conversation about Christian’s ideas.
“I can imagine from the newspaper’s point of view there may be more of a desire to keep the discussion going,” Thomsen said.
And Fels said installing a board could greatly benefit the paper and its adviser.
“The wide variety of people that was proposed to be on that board would have been great because they would have given me opinions that weren’t just (those of) the newspaper staff and the headmaster,” she said.
Now, Fels said, a board would have also benefited a new adviser like Bauman.
—By Héloïse Schep
Originally published in the Jan. 15 issue of the Octagon