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Task Force Reviews Disciplinary Process
Christian Odenius '22 Spread Editor
October 31, 2020

As part of Head of School John Austin’s Action Plan to Strengthen Equity, Inclusion, and Community Culture, the Discipline Review Task Force has launched its reexamination of Deerfield’s disciplinary process.

The twelve-member Task Force, composed of administrators, long-standing faculty on the Disciplinary and Academic Honor Committees, and student representatives, convened for the first in a series of monthly meetings on October 7. The Task Force plans to report its findings to Dr. Austin in March of 2021. The report will suggest policies for next year’s student handbook and a training program for those students and faculty involved in discipline. 

“A lot of what we’re doing [in discipline] is incredibly outdated and has been in place for longer than I’ve been here, and that’s over ten years,” Samuel Bicknell, the Dean of Students and a Task Force member, said. “It’s time, and a lot of students, faculty — the community at large, really — are looking forward to seeing some sort of change.”

One such change might include the adoption of restorative, rather than punitive, disciplinary practices, Mr. Bicknell said. “We want for students to learn from mistakes, to take responsibility, to be accountable, and for the community to rally around those students as they go through that growth. And we want to make sure that we are supporting those community members who have been harmed,” he explained.

Assistant Head of School and Task Force Chair Amie Creagh likewise emphasized the importance of growth-focused discipline. “Mistakes  are really, really important. They’re how you learn and grow,” she said. “And if we’re mishandling mistakes, or not taking advantage of them as learning opportunities, we’ve got to adjust.”

Ms. Creagh explained that the Task Force’s report will consider the interests of four Deerfield constituencies: those harmed by rule violations, rule-breakers, on-campus community members, and the off-campus community, including alumni, families, and prospective students.

“The essential questions are: how are we representing ourselves through our disciplinary process, and does that align with who we want to be?” Ms. Creagh said.

Goal No. 2 of Dr. Austin’s Action Plan, “Strengthening Community and School Culture,” establishes a Discipline Review Task Force “to ensure that they [disciplinary processes] reflect the Academy’s longstanding commitment to fairness, to the confidentiality and dignity of all students, and to the highest levels of accountability and character.”

One reason for the Task Force’s formation, according to Goal No. 2, is to reconsider the circumstances that prompt Deerfield to report student misconduct to colleges.

“The specter of college notification and the perceived implication of breaking rules when it comes to college notification has grown vastly in the last ten years. We want to examine that because it now plays an outsized role and in many instances seems like the biggest consequence of breaking a rule, and it’s completely external,” Ms. Creagh said.

Goal No. 2 also specifically establishes that the Task Force review DEER (Discipline, Educate, Empower, Reconcile), a joint student and Student Life Office proposal for restorative discipline meant to combat identity-based, and especially racial, discrimination that does not always fall within the scope of current disciplinary practice.

Assistant Head of School for Academic Affairs and Strategy Ivory Hills, also a member of the Task Force, said, “One of the nudges that led us here is definitely, at least in part, the DEER proposal. The other is student concern that the rulebook and disciplinary practice may not be dealing with identity-based infractions fairly or properly.”

Angela Osei-Amapadu ’21, the Student Council Chair on the Task Force, explained these concerns. “Although our handbook does condemn discrimination of any sort and bullying, sometimes identity-based discrimination can be more nuanced than bullying or may not be defined as bullying. The rulebook isn’t equipped to handle these situations,” she said.

In the past, Osei-Ampadu explained, identity-based infractions have most prominently featured the use of racial and sexual slurs. She cited the hate speech written on a window of the Hess Center of the Arts last school year as one prime example.

“I know so many black students who don’t report these cases of discimination because they don’t believe that faculty will act on that information,” she continued. “I have friends who have reported these incidents to faculty members, and either the school failed to respond, or the school was not transparent enough about their response, so that it appeared that the school did nothing.”

Mr. Bicknell acknowledged a need for transparency in his interview with The Scroll

“Transparency can be really challenging around confidentiality and privacy of individuals… There are often situations where we do respond, but students or the community at large isn’t in the know about that response,” he said. “We want to be transparent enough that students can have trust in the process.”

The Discipline Review Task Force’s formation comes amid mounting internal and external pressure for reform. In September, the Deerfield Black Student Alliance (DBSA) organized a daylong sit-in on the lawn of the Main School Building in protest of perceived discrimination against black students on campus and of the school’s handling of these cases. Chief among the DBSA’s demands were a call for the immediate implementation of DEER.

Months prior to the sit-in, in June, CNN, The Boston Globe, and Boston Magazine all reported on blackatdeerfieldofficial, a public Instagram account that relays the experiences of anonymous black students and alumni at Deerfield. The publications all highlighted specific posts and received comments from account administrators Jada Howard ’19, Chenelle Jones ’19, Alexia Baker ’19, Jennifer Brown ’19, and Aminata Ka ’19, who are Deerfield alumni of color. They also reported on similar accounts at peer schools like Tabor Academy, Phillips Academy Andover, Milton Academy, and Groton School.

Black at Deerfield has garnered 2, 524 followers as of October 12. The account description promises “an honest look at the reality of black students at Deerfield” and a “safe space for the students the Academy has failed to protect.”

Black at Deerfield has recently published a list of demands to the Deerfield administration. According to the account, Black at Deerfield members also met with administrators on August 10 to demand increased racial-sensitivity training for faculty and titled student leaders, greater transparency, the recruitment of more faculty of color, and the implementation of DEER.

Black at Deerfield, according to Osei-Ampadu, has “highlighted the negative experiences of students of color on campus—the racism, the discrimination, the hate.”

“The reality is one that white students, white faculty, white administrators have never really considered before,” she said. “Black students are afraid, are so nervous about their next actions, and attend school in fear all the time.”

In a joint statement to The Scroll, Black at Deerfield’s account administrators wrote, “We hope that the conversations started over the summer will continue to infiltrate the classrooms and dorms to encourage permanent change on campus. We… have received immense support from individual faculty, students, alumni, and parents. We are sure that the administration has heard and is aware of our goals, and we have seen their attempts to meet those goals. We only hope that they continue to follow through and make the necessary efforts.”

Over the next months, the Task Force will focus on a review of the strengths and weaknesses of Deerfield’s current disciplinary system and will conduct a thorough reading and discussion of the student handbook. The Task Force will also likely consult, in detail, policies at peer boarding schools, colleges, and public high schools. The next meeting, set for October 20, will feature a reading and discussion of DEER specifically.

In November, Roland Davis, the new Inclusion and Community Life Consultant, will meet with student focus groups to obtain impartial feedback on current disciplinary policy. Dr. Davis will also suggest a syllabus and readings to the Task Force and will serve on the Force in other capacities.

Ultimately, according to Dr. Austin’s Action Plan, the Task Force’s March report will receive evaluation from third-party experts and consultants. The Board of Trustees may also review the report.

“The Board is tasked with the strategic, intergenerational stability and reputation of the school… to manage the school on a year-to-year and decade-to-decade basis,” Dr. Hills noted. “They would not want a change that is so substantial that the identity of the school is dramatically changed or compromised.”

Osei-Ampadu nevertheless stressed the importance of disciplinary reform to her and, more broadly, students of color. She said, “I hope that the change that we suggest as a committee gets approved—whether it’s by the Board of Trustees or the administration—and that those people in power understand how important this is to so many students of color and to the next generation of students of color to come to Deerfield.”