Is the Discipline Bar Set Too High for Boarders?

Question: My son was just asked to leave his boarding school, only a few weeks before graduation, because a faculty member found him (and two other seniors) smoking marijuana in his dorm room. The other seniors were dismissed as well. The school plans to notify the college my son expects to attend and told us that the college may rescind the acceptance. My son, who has always been a strong student and leader–until now–is going to ask for a special in-person interview to explain the circumstances to the college, with the hope that his acceptance will not be revoked. My husband and I are very disappointed by our son’s behavior, and he will face recriminations at home as well. Yet it strikes me that boarding school students are at an unfair disadvantage. When students at day schools (public or private) face similar infractions, it rarely results in dismissal because usually these things take place off the school grounds so the school isn’t involved at all. Is it reasonable to impose such harsh punishments only on boarders?

Your story is a familiar one. In fact, this spring, an almost epidemic number of similar queries have landed in the Dean’s in-box. While the stories vary somewhat, the prevailing theme is that a boarding school student was caught using or harboring drugs or alcohol and was expelled from the school, just weeks shy of graduation. The other prevailing theme has been along the lines of, “Up until now, Junior has been a class leader, model citizen, etc. This is a first offense, but the school has a zero-tolerance policy.”

So, I, too, can’t help but consider all the local high school students I’ve known over the years who have had been involved in some sort of substance-related offense and whose punishment has never included expulsion from school and usually not even suspension. This is because, as you’ve noted, the infractions typically take place off of school grounds. The teens are apprehended in cars, in parks, at concerts, or in other situations where the police may get involved but not the principal. And, in most cases, the punishment is a scary trip through the legal system that usually results in a slap on the wrist from the courts and perhaps something harsher at home. But only rarely do the colleges get wind of the offense, if all of this transpired after the applications and verdicts were a done deal.

Thus it does seem to me that boarding school students can pay a steep price for doing what many other teenagers are doing anyway. Granted, the “everyone’s doing it” excuse will not have a lot of legs, should my own son (now 13) ever get himself in such hot water. But, even so, I question these zero-tolerance policies that many boarding schools impose. I understand, of course, that such schools have very weighty in loco parentis duties to uphold and are responsible for each student’s safety, 24/7, not just during a six-hour day. Yet most of my “Ask the Dean” missives come from the parents themselves, not their progeny. Indeed, it’s the parents who are complaining that the punishment imposed by the boarding school is too severe for the crime … certainly far worse than anything that would have been meted out on the home-front.

Indeed, I find it ironic that the in loco parentis approach of the boarding school does not really reflect how an actual parent would handle such incidents. Boarding students seem to be held to a higher standard than their day-student counterparts. While I do understand that boarding communities–made up of hundreds of teenagers–can’t function exactly the same way as households composed of one or two, I feel that “zero-tolerance” of what is otherwise Standard Operating Procedure for many teens should be reevaluated. School administrators should formally recognize–as most parents in my orbit seem to do–that there are degrees of misbehavior. Sharing a beer or a joint with close friends is very different from bringing unsavory characters in off the street to shoot heroin. I’m not saying that both school officials and parents should be cavalier about drugs and alcohol, only that the punishment should fit the crime, and that perhaps some school policies should be reviewed and revised to reflect this.

However, when your son meets with admission officials to plead his case, this is not the time for him to play the victim of unreasonable school rules. Instead, he should briefly explain the episode and then emphasize what he’s learned from it. The college folks may be understandably concerned that your son will be bringing a drug problem–and the drugs themselves–to their campus in the fall. So he might want to provide assurances that his drug use was rite-of-passage experimentation and not part of an escalating pattern. At the same time, he should be careful not to trivialize it. He might also want to volunteer to start his college career on some sort of probation, so he’ll be subjecting himself to monitoring by a dean or other adult until he proves he doesn’t need it. Above all, he should explain that the price he’s paid has been severe enough to frighten him back to model-citizen behavior throughout his college career.

Good luck!

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