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Letter to the Editor

I commend you for the editorial on the recent graffiti incident, “Graffiti on the Koch: Shame and Respect,” and for your call to “re-examine our commitment to respecting the beautiful campus and community in which we live.” At your request, I am summarizing my remarks to the community at the April 26 school meeting and explaining my rationale for dismissing the two students involved in this incident. This is the first time in my five years at Deerfield when I have felt compelled to explain a disciplinary decision and to highlight the lessons we can learn from these serious infractions. It is important to remember that the Disciplinary Committee performs two important roles at the Academy: on a pragmatic, transactional level, this group of faculty and students decides on the appropriate disciplinary response to a specific transgression, but on a more profound, significant level, they consider how a mistake or a lapse in judgment can be turned into a learning opportunity for the whole community. This is precisely the reason we announce the outcomes of Disciplinary Committee proceedings at school meetings. These announcements are intended to affirm our school values and to remind us of the expectations we must honor as members of this community. I view these hearings and the subsequent announcements as an invitation to reflect on the purpose of a Deerfield education and as re-centering, morally-grounding opportunities.

Two days after the incident, we were able to gather as a community in the dining hall at Sunday sit-down dinner. I was due to launch the reaccreditation process for Loomis Chaffee, but I drove back to our campus so I could address the school in person. As an offense, the graffiti incident represents the very antithesis of what Deerfield stands for, and as such, I felt it was important to send a clear, unequivocal message: this type of behavior cannot and will not be tolerated at the school. The defacement of the Koch Center was a premeditated act with the explicit purpose of discrediting the school on a Second Visit Day and questioning the integrity of the community in which we live, study, and work. Unlike most other student transgressions, this incident had repercussions for the entire community, not only for the individuals involved. Personal anger and frustration should not take precedence over the welfare or reputation of the community. It was this broader impact that, in my view, placed this incident in the most serious disciplinary category.

Since Mr. Boyden’s days, the primary purpose of a Deerfield education has focused on the development of character, the affirmation of values that build and sustain community. Trust and honesty rank high on our list. While the enhancement of students’ academic skills and the acquisition of knowledge across a wide array of disciplines are paramount in any educational institution, in the end, all of this learning amounts to nothing if we have not taught you how to be good, honorable people.
As a learning community, we believe in civil discourse, in the free and open exchange of ideas. We welcome spirited debate in our classrooms, our dormitories, and every place in between. There are appropriate venues to express our opinions and convictions. Graffiti is not one of them. The anonymous questioning of the school’s integrity, and the accusations without evidence, constitute a direct affront to our institutional identity and our mission. The offensive language against one of our deans also violated one of our core principles: respect. While the deans must make unpopular decisions from time to time, their intent is not to humiliate but to teach, and to uphold our community values.

Looking ahead, I do think it is critical to remember that good people can make serious mistakes. My hope, as I said to the two students involved, is that they will view their dismissal as an opportunity to grow and strengthen their character. One of the students has indicated that he would like to share his reflections on this incident with the community, and I have encouraged him to send them to The Scroll.

-Margarita Curtis
Head of School

3 Comments on Letter to the Editor

  1. Overturning the DC’s decision and expelling a student does not look like “civil discourse” to me. What’s more character building than having to face Mr. Flaska and talk to him after the incident. Clearly a classic case of putting the institution way before the student… a recurring theme in Deerfield and my fundamental problem with the school. I understand that a private school is a business and that other schools run this way, but I challenge you to break this trend and to be about the students rather than Mr. Koch.

  2. David Tenney // June 10, 2011 at 12:56 am // Reply

    I believe that the school did the right thing in dismissing the two students. Respect and integrity are core Deerfield values, and every student is expected to adhere to these principles. The welfare of the school, and its values must always take precedence over those of individual members. Noone sets foot on campus without first fully understanding and accepting this.

    In this instance the school did take into account the welfare of the two students who committed this act, but it had to balance this consideration against the welfare and best interests of the school community. In doing so Deerfield clearly demonstrated that it was “about the students,” namely the vast majority who honor the school’s values. Had the school failed to take stern action in response to this offense respect for the school’s values would have been compromised.

    This is a teachable moment for the Deerfield community, albeit a sad one. I have come to have even greater respect for the school as a result of the Head’s courageous and principled decision.

  3. Anonymous alumnus // June 29, 2011 at 5:59 pm // Reply

    Given that the Scroll has not reported any real details about this incident–other than that students spray-painted on the Koch center–it is hard to see how it offers a teachable moment to the greater Deerfield community. Please spare us the platitudes and give us the facts (i.e. a story). This is a newspaper for the whole Deerfield community, not a mouthpiece for administrators.

    Vandalism is not acceptable, we can all agree on that. But lots of students make mistakes and are given second chances–why not these students? Again, I don’t have all the information, but unless it’s academic dishonesty (i.e. cheating or plagiarizing) I wouldn’t think expulsion is warranted. Sometimes people learn the most when they are given a second chance.

    In any case, one thing that is not being talked about is the shame and disrespect that comes from Deerfield’s association with David Koch. If you look outside that tiny historic village in western Mass., you would see that Koch Industries is one of the biggest corporate polluters in America. In fact, you only have to go down the road to UMass-Amherst, where you will find Koch Industries as #10 on the list of Toxic 100 Air Polluters:
    http://www.peri.umass.edu/toxic_index/

    And while DA students are studying science at the Koch Center, the Kochs are out there spending millions to fuel climate change denial. (You can read about that in the New Yorker article.)

    If anyone’s integrity should be questioned, it is David Koch’s. If anyone should be kicked out of Deerfield, it is David Koch, the life-time trustee. How does a trustee like David Koch fit with Deerfield’s values and commitment to sustainability?

    Hopefully, there are students who are engaging in this sort of dialogue, even though others at Deerfield may be compromised or would prefer to look the other way. There are a lot of teachable moments here, but as a community we have to start by being honest with ourselves.

    Sincerely,

    A concerned Deerfield Academy alumnus

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