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Greenhill re-examines offensive language policy

At Greenhill, not everything is clear.

When it comes to addressing behavioral conduct, there’s a lot of gray area. This fall, and in years past, the Greenhill community has been faced with students using racial, homophobic, and bigoted slurs on and off campus. The Honor Code, which is provided in the student handbook for every Middle and Upper School student, states that honor offenses “include, but [are] not limited to lying, stealing, and cheating.”

The Honor Code provides no concrete consequences as a result of these actions or actions pertaining to derogatory language. Most cases are taken before the Honor Council, a group of elected students and faculty. This selected group decides the punishment for each specific case. Greenhill’s emphasis on individuality extends to how they go about deciding student punishments: each violation is tried before the Honor Council and evaluated on a case-to-case basis.

Along with the lack of concrete penal guidelines, the Honor Code and handbook also do not provide explicit policy on the use of offensive language on or off campus, such as racial slurs, homophobic language, sexist comments, or any other form of derogatory speech.
Head of School Scott Griggs said it is important to take offenses case by case.

“Every case is individual, and all are challenging. Most of our policies are a little vague, to allow for some interpretation, because every situation is different,” said Mr. Griggs. “We do not have a zero-tolerance policy on everything at this school. We’re dealing with children, we’re dealing with students, and students make mistakes. We want this to be a learning environment for students in those situations.”

Head of Upper School Trevor Worcester agreed on the importance of handling cases on an individual basis.

“It’s tough to have explicit ‘if/then’ statements [when it comes to punishment],” said Mr. Worcester. “That’s really tough to manage, because then you’re boxing yourself in.”

For cases dealing with offensive language or actions, just like an Honor Code violation, there is no definitive answer. Page 11 of the student handbook states “discriminatory or harassing students or acts upon race, color, religion, gender, ethnicity, national origin, disability, or sexual orientation will not be tolerated.” Unlike an Honor Code violation, there is not as much precedent on how to handle these cases.

“[Greenhill’s policy on derogatory language or actions] is that we officially do not tolerate it,” said Mr. Worcester. “I wouldn’t say that it’s zero tolerance, because that’s challenging, especially when it isn’t explicitly written, and therefore it’s hard to follow.”

In light of the recent usage of discriminatory language on campus, Greenhill administration is in the process of setting forward
clearer guidelines for students.

“We’ve learned that we need to revisit [the handbook], and put forward some clearer expectations,” said Mr. Worcester.

Currently, Greenhill is working to clarify conduct expectations on campus. Twenty-six students, along with faculty and administrators, met in early October to discuss if the offensive language policy should be more explicit in punishment for using offensive speech.

“I’m still wrestling with the policy,” said Mr. Griggs. “I don’t know what the ideal is at this point. I think it’s fair to say that the climate outside of Greenhill has changed in recent times, and that’s having an impact on us, as I mentioned in my comments to the student body, we cannot ignore the climate outside, but we have to do what’s right for Greenhill for our community here.”

Senior Karis Thomas said the most important response in situations of intolerant language or actions is education and growth. Hill Guides, the program that pairs prospective students and families with current students to tour Greenhill, gives people looking at Greenhill an idea of the school, but not necessarily its language policies. Karis thinks this is a problem.

“I think up front education is the most important thing, especially to new students,” said Karis. “There should be a policy or an orientation—like how we have Hill Guides—where we go over offensive and discriminatory language, what’s acceptable and what’s not, what you can say, what you can’t say.”

Karis said these expectations should be laid out so that students understand the type of environment that Greenhill tries to foster upon enrolling at the school.
“It’s about what kind of environment we want to have here. People know up front about the academics, but they should also know about the environment,” she said.

Senior and Another Perspective Club Co-president Maya LaRosiliere said there needs to be a clear-cut policy that Greenhill could implement to punish those who engage in offensive speech. Another Perspective looks at relevant social and societal issues from the lens of a minority. However, Maya recognizes the impracticability of establishing such a policy.

“In an ideal world, [a policy on discriminatory language] would be necessary. However, when you get into it, [offensive language] can be hard to define,” said Maya. “What’s offensive to me may not be offensive to others, and what’s offensive to others may not be offensive to me. I think it has to be handled case by case.”

Maya said offensive language can often be about perspective—and about if there is proof of a person saying the words—but thinks that there are steps that should be taken to further improve the Greenhill environment and thinks that this is a product of the world outside of Greenhill as well.

There is no clear path to take when handling the use of offensive language, and Greenhill’s policy—or lack thereof—can confirm this. If there’s one thing that people can agree on, it’s that the use of offensive language is divisive.

“Division is a commonplace in society. Discriminatory language is divisive. When you go to Greenhill, you want to be a part of one community,” Maya said.

Photo by Lili Stern

Originally published in the November 2017 print issue


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