As a member of the Grace community, there was no denying the urgency for change that reverberated through students and faculty alike last year. The cry shook Grace to its core and called for self-reflection as well as a revision of the school’s founding principles. As a result, conversations in chapel, community meetings, and advisories ensued. Conversations are helpful in some cases, but many were left wondering; what actions are being taken to make students feel safe coming to school?
At 7 AM on a Wednesday, fourteen Grace students, Ms. Chaloner, and Mr. Andre gathered for the first meeting of the Student Diversity Council of 2019. A little while later, Mr. Mahabir appeared, and a new document was passed around titled The Student Life Agreement. It had been adapted by faculty and students after it was composed by last year’s student government. One question that was brought up during the meeting was: how can Grace ensure that this document is not just another form that students sign carelessly?
To investigate this question, I reached out to Mr. Mahabir, Head of High School, “There are things you can and can’t do and can and can’t say. However, I think experience has shown us that, especially last year’s heightened conversation about anti-racism in particular, really illustrated for us that we need to engage the student body more directly in making a more active commitment to these values.” The Student Life Agreement is a way of reiterating Grace’s mission and reinforcing its commitment to being anti-racist, as opposed to just being a non-racist institution. Having a more formal and tangible document to sign, such as the Student Life Agreement, is “also a symbolic commitment of making a commitment altogether. It has a communal dimension to it,” Mr. Mahabir elaborates. By making the form a school-wide agreement, faculty hope to see students realize that their actions don’t just affect them on a disciplinary level, but affect the community as a whole and as an institution. To encourage this, Mr. Mahabir hopes to implement another student-run panel in January called the Student Community Board. The Community Board is still in its early stages of planning, but the idea is that it would be a student-run and faculty-supported group whose goal is to restore a student who has wronged another to the community through a conversation in order to understand how their actions affect someone else. Whereas the Disciplinary Committee takes action on a disciplinary level and determines what consequences should follow a student’s behavior. The Student Community Board would question the choices of students whose actions do not rise to the level of severity that the Disciplinary Committee deals with. As Ms. Chaloner puts it, you can think of the Student Community Board as a ‘hive’ where members of the Committee may alternate out of a more significant collective so members can be more personalized to each situation. For example, If the student said something sexist towards women, the five representatives for that meeting might mainly be composed of women.
Another question worth asking is how Grace plans on measuring its progress in making the school a more actively anti-racist institution. “I would say taking actions such as the Student Life Agreement, which goes through a process of writing and adoption, is taking a very significant step. It will help to move the community forward. Considering and developing a proposal to have a Student Community Board is also a notable achievement. A community that is participating in that dialogue and reflection is a healthy community,” Mr. Mahabir stated.
Mr. Andre, Grace’s very own Dean of Equity and Inclusion, can also see Grace’s progress and efforts in combating the social issue of inclusion and anti-racism, “I like that we’re approaching this from a few different angles. We have 9th & 10th grade mandatory Community and Diversity classes and 11th & 12th grade electives on equity issues and social justice. We have affinity spaces as well as the Student Diversity Council, which are student-led spaces where these conversations can happen.”
At the beginning of the school year, students signed the Harassment Policy, Technology Fair Use Policy, as well as the Academic Honesty Pledge, however many students and faculty agree that the Student Life Agreement deserves more weight than the others. “Some of the feedback we received concerning the original documents was that it seemed like they were all written by adults,” Mr. Andre added, recalling the discussions surrounding anti-racism that occurred last year. This is what makes the Student Life Agreement special; it was written for students, by students. This movement, led by student-body president graduate Kaitlyn Major-Hale ‘19, cultivated the Student Life Agreement. It was then passed on to Mr. Mahabir, faculty members, and finally to the Student Diversity Council, where it was finalized and agreed upon. Mr. Mahabir and Mr. Andre concur that the document has a new dimension to it, and with every student and staff signature, a palpable community bond is created. It isn’t just a promise we’re making to ourselves, but a commitment to the community as a whole.
It’s up to the students to now feel that bond that we created. To not only be mindful of our promise to one another when we are at school but throughout our lives. We are not only one person or one student, but a member of the ever-evolving and vibrant community that is Grace Church School.