The Power of Student Government

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The Power of Student Government

Lynne Sipprelle and Sam Keimweiss

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Less than a decade ago, the Governing Council (GC), the school’s student government oversaw the allocation of funds to clubs and publications and  drafted a new honor code for the school.

Today, the Community Council (CC), which replaced the GC after it was abolished, proposes and oversees events and initiatives with the approval of the administration.

The change is one of several ways in which the students involved in school government have less autonomy and formal responsbility than they did in the past.

The GC and SBP branches of government were first created in 1971 by Headmaster R. Inslee Clark, Director of the Center for Community Values & Action Dr. Jeremy Leeds ‘73 said. Leeds, a senior at the time, was elected the first SBP.

“A lot of the actual governance of the school was under the authority of this new system,” a system that was still undefined, Leeds said.

The GC existed through the 2011-2012 school year, after which the school administration abolished it.

During the GC’s 40 years of existence, student-elected representatives and faculty members wrote and passed legislative bills following American parliamentary procedure and a constitution of their own making.

When Justin Lerer ‘95 served as Chair of the GC, the council consisted of twice as many students as teachers, but each teacher had two votes. “I thought it was really nice that students and teachers worked together on it,” Lerer said.

Students and faculty had equal say during Dean of the Class of 2018 Dr. Glenn Wallach’s time as a GC representative from 2003-2006, Wallach said.

Nathan Raab ‘13 served a year and a half on the GC before becoming the co-Chair of the new CC during his senior year.

After the GC passed legislature, it was sent to the administration, who could either implement the changes or veto the bill, Raab said. A standard GC bill was formatted as, “The head of the school shall do x by y date,” Raab said.

“There was a sense among administrators that that was not necessarily an appropriate way of running the school,” Raab said.

“My understanding is that it stopped functioning in mature fashion,” Lerer said. “I think frankly the teachers stopped being involved as much.”

In the 2001-2002 school year, for example, the GC passed bills concerning the organization of half-period club meetings and the transition from eighth to ninth grade, among others. They also passed a bill bridging teachers’ rights and students’ rights with regards to mandatory review days that was vetoed by the administration, according to the 2002 Mannikin.

Clubs and publications also brought proposals regarding their funds for the year to the GC, and the GC decided how to allocate the school budget, Delanty said.

Nshera Tutu (9) wished the CC still had power over the budget since that would allow them to make more meaningful changes, she said.

Should the CC have power over the budget, allocations would best reflect “the sentiment among the student body,” CC Chair Amir Moazami (12) said. The goal would be to have “some vague understanding of how much money is going to which club and if that really makes sense,” Moazami said.

However, students on the GC would sometimes allocate club funding in a biased manner, Raab said. “Some students thought that they were the final official group that could say things about what would happen to the allocation of the school’s resources,” he said.

The GC’s power with the budget caused many arguments and complaints, Wallach said. He also pointed out the steadily increasing power of students as an issue. Some members thought that the GC was led by students, a conception that “did not reflect the reality of the school,” Wallach said.

The CC is much more inclusive and community-oriented, Delanty said. “I think the idea and purpose of it as something that brings the community together and makes sure everyone is included really works.”

The recent forum on the Parkland shooting is an example of a coordinated, comprehensive student response that the CC can organize, Wallach said. “I think the essential question is what is the best way for students to be able to discuss issues important to the school,” he said.

The CC’s informality makes it more accessible and creates a better working relationship between students and faculty, Raab said. However, the parliamentary procedure of the GC ensured all students were heard and taught students to write, debate, and be more thoughtful, he said.

Current Student Body President (SBP) Daniel Posner (12) believes that student government has numerous benefits for students.

“What student government allows us to do is to practice the skills, the knowledge, the processes of democratic government. And if we are to be successful, contributing members to our democracy, and if our democracy is to sustain itself, particularly as its now under stress, whats more important than continuing to practice these vital skills,” Posner said.

Lerer believes the school should have kept the GC, he said. “While I wasn’t at the school when it was changed, and I have tremendous respect for Dr. Schiller, who made the change, it seems to me that the school could have tried to fix what it had instead of getting rid of it,” Lerer said.

English teacher Dr. David Schiller did not respond to questions about the changes implemented during his tenure as Head of School.

“The Governing Council is in many ways an artifact of a particular moment in school government,” Wallach said.

“It’s a much different school now; it’s run much differently. It’s also a different time in the way we think about education,” Leeds said. While there is still much to learn from the past, “I don’t think the best answer to most things is to go back to an old way, because things have moved on,” he said.

While the CC has less power than the GC did, CC member Malhaar Agrawal (10) thinks people discount the CC’s power, he said. The administration often takes a hands-off attitude towards the CC’s initiatives and works to compromise whenever possible, Agrawal said.

The CC meets every other Tuesday as a collective group, and Moazami and CC Secretary Janvi Kukreja (11) have had three to four meetings with CC faculty advisers since the beginning of the school year, Kukreja said.

History teacher Dr. Elisa Milkes was a CC faculty advisor from the beginning of the CC until 2017. “You have the responsibility of assisting students to figure out where they might make a difference in the school,” Milkes said. “Our intention was to be encouraging and to point out the positive progress that had been made.”

“We have a lot of faculty advisors on our side, so I think we really do have enough power to do what we want to do and make change,” Kukreja said.

“There is power in the fact that we are a community and we have a lot of voices together and we can bring people together, but at the end of the day you still ultimately have to follow what the administration says,” Moazami said. However, Moazami has never had an initiative blocked by the administration, he said.

The role of the SBPs has also changed because of incidents such as the racially insensitive joke told in this year’s first SBP assembly and the controversial 2016 SBP video.

A faculty assembly committee that reviews SBP assembly material now exists, Delanty said. Similar assembly committees have existed periodically throughout the school’s history, Delanty said.

The Assembly Committee reviews speeches and advises speakers to ensure nothing offensive is said and students sound good, Director of Student Activities Caroline Bartels said. “At this point we ask [students] to give us anything they’re going to say on stage. They have to have it written down.”

“Everything I say onstage is reviewed,” Posner said.

Being SBP is about knowing he has a platform and a voice at moments when everyone in the school is together, Posner said. He wants to use these opportunities to create meaningful experiences for the school community, he said.

In 2006, a Student Body Vice President role was created, and in 2012, Alex Posner ‘13 and Charles Scherr ‘13 created the co-SBP positions we have today, Delanty said.

The history around SBP assemblies and SBP videos has made junior co-CPs David Shen (11) and Philip Shen (11) more careful when they produced a grade music video, they said.

Senior co-CP Ben Heller (12) has become more cautious when speaking in public since the SBP assembly this year, he said. “If I’m speaking at a grade meeting, it makes me more aware and open making sure nothing like that happens. If you want to be funny during a meeting, just be really careful with that,” Heller said.

Sophomore co-CP’s Ella Anthony (10) and Roey Nornberg (10) primarily plan assemblies and work with class apparel, Anthony said. Nornberg and Anthony meet with Dean of the Class of 2020 Stephanie Feigin at least once every two weeks.

“Whoever is in the [CP] role takes on whatever they want to take on,” Delanty said. “There hasn’t been a job description.”

Senior co-CP Rachel Okin (12) wanted to be class president so she could make daily school life more enjoyable for the members of her grade “and, of course, for the ability to send multi-colored grade-wide emails,” she said.

David and Philip have been able to accomplish almost all of their initiatives working with the administration, but they have always been realistic in terms of what they can achieve, Philip said.

“We don’t really have the power to broadly change school policy, so we divert attention from that kind of stuff,” Philip said.

The only initiative put forth by David and Philip that was blocked by the administration was bobbing for apples because of sanitary concerns, David said. Similar to the CC, both David and Philip wish for more control over a larger budget, as price restraints have prevented them from getting nicer class apparel and hosting events such as a fall pancake-fest, they said.

Heller wonders if there is a need for both CC members and CPs. “Just because when they all are essentially representatives of their grades, it’s the same as being on the Community Council,” Heller said.

“I think it’s always a good question how to get the student voice heard,” Leeds said.

Maybe in the future there should be more defined roles in student government and fewer of them, Dean of Student Life Dr. Susan Delanty said.