At this point, early in the school year, lots of thoughts are bouncing around in my head. I continue to ponder emotional health and wellness. I am constantly revisiting academic rigor. And, I regularly consider how we handle discipline here at ESD. Each of these topics has generated conversations with parents, faculty, and students.
In mid-September, Freedom from Chemical Dependency (FCD) visited our campus and spent four days with all of our students, particularly our 9th and 11th graders. At the end of the week, our three FCD representatives met with a small group of administrators to share a few general takeaways they gathered from their time on Merrell Road. One important observation they made is that our students do not have a consistent understanding of a concept we call "safe harbor."
I'll back up a little bit.
At The Episcopal School of Dallas, we have long believed and articulated that, if a student approaches us with a concern for themselves or for a friend, we are obligated to provide support without imposing a penalty. For example, if a student visited their advisor, shared that they are struggling with a nicotine addiction, and were worried about their ability to successfully function in class, the school would offer resources to help them without issuing any disciplinary consequences. Similarly, if a student pulled our counselor aside and informed them about a friend who was struggling with a drug addiction, we would approach that student and offer support without any disciplinary recourse. Finally, if a parent were to call me on the phone and tell me that their child is struggling with alcohol, we would provide assistance and resources without repercussions.
You get my point.
In all of these cases, per the Handbook, the school's response is not the same as it would be were the student caught participating in any of the activities associated with these issues at school. Hence, the term "safe harbor."
Typically, we discover that a problem exists only after a student has run afoul of the handbook and is in a bind. Because rules were broken, trust was violated, and the community was harmed, they suffer disciplinary consequences and have a mark on their record. As an educator, I would prefer to avoid this scenario entirely. Our highest priority is always student health, well being, and safety.
In order for safe harbor to work effectively, there has to be a high level of trust between students, families, and the school. It requires significant vulnerability to admit you or a loved one has a problem. And, no teenager wants to be a "snitch." So, the proof is in the proverbial pudding. ESD must demonstrate how serious we are about this philosophy and fully alleviate any fears that knowledge of a student's habits will result in them having a nick on their record.
Well, here it is. This newsletter. These words.
We say it to the students. The Handbook is our governing document and safe harbor is included in it. But, we can't emphasize it enough.
Like every independent school administrator in Dallas, I know that there are students who are struggling. And, I pray every day that one will walk through my door and take me up on our offer of safe harbor. It rarely happens. And I get it. It isn't easy. It is much simpler to imagine that an issue will get better over the summer, or after high school, or that they will just grow out of it. I wish that was always true. But we all know that it isn't.
While the focus of this letter is physical wellness, I think we can also apply this general concept to our Academic Pledge. If a student cheats on a test, plagiarizes a paper, or lies to their teacher, but comes to find the teacher before the violation is discovered, we would praise them for their honesty and emphasize that their character and integrity remain firmly intact. ESD's philosophy is unwavering.
I am sure that some of you have eyebrows raised or eyes rolling as you read these words. Your skepticism is natural. And, trust is hard to come by these days. Like you, however, I am highly concerned that we will continue to see students who are scared of retribution and therefore refuse to advocate for themselves or others. I refuse to continue down this path. Even if you are a cynic, I can't imagine you want to either.
Please, please, please help me get the word out. Help me help our students. Together, we can strengthen and support a positive and healthy culture at ESD.