The Secret System: How the Honor System operates on confidentiality

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Kinsey Grant

The Washington and Lee student body selected last week its new Executive Committee officers. Students know these young men and women as classmates, peers and people they pass on the colonnade. But the information to which these newly elected members will be privileged is likely to never be known by the student body as a whole.

The confidentiality clause in the White Book sets forth protocol for speaking about potential or proven honor violations. All students are forbidden from discussing the details of an open hearing with anyone outside the community. For students involved in an honor violation investigation or closed hearing, they may not discuss any facet of the case with anyone not directly involved, including their peers.

It’s a high standard, but one that students agree to when they sign the White Book during orientation week.

“It’s hard to explain it to someone who is not a part of our community because they don’t really see the intimacy that we have with each other,” EC President Mason Grist, ‘18, said.

Within the Community

So what makes up our community? What parts compose the whole? According to Grist, it’s a fluid definition consisting of students, faculty and staff.

“It’s the people who are here on campus every day and are currently invested in making W&L a better place,” Grist said.

But while Grist said students are “absolutely” allowed to speak to each other about the details of open hearings, those outside of the community are not privy to any information regarding an honor violation hearing—even if that hearing is open.

The EC posts descriptions of open student body hearings when the accused is found guilty. In these honor notices, which are posted on a bulletin board outside Café 77 and online, the accused is described only as a student. The post explains when the incident in question occurred and what the case involved.

A March 1 post described the dismissal of a student who “violated the community’s trust by misrepresenting his/her hours spent volunteering and/or misrepresented interactions with members of the Washington and Lee Community.”

Accessible via the W&L website, anyone inside or outside the community can read these descriptions of honor trials, as well as other information on EC meetings, student body notices and announcements.

The Extent of Confidentiality

If a student is called to be a witness in an investigation or closed hearing, he or she is under strict orders from the EC to keep the name of the accused, details about the case or anything regarding the accused’s testimony completely confidential.

Grist said via email that the EC prefers student witnesses avoid telling others that they are even involved in an investigation.

“The general goal of confidentiality is to try and avoid alerting the student body to the fact that a hearing is going on,” Grist said. “Of course if they have to tell a professor or something, it would certainly be acceptable.”

According to Grist, if a student is reported by a peer for cheating on a test, for example, he or she might go to a closed hearing in front of the EC following an investigation. For that closed hearing, the student will have a hearing advisor assigned to help with the case. The hearing advisor will put together a defense and call witnesses. The EC will present a full investigation and witnesses will be called.

And all of it remains confidential.

If another student sits next to the accused in class, for example, and is asked to testify, he or she is not allowed to speak of it. That student is asked to read the “confidentiality and harassment” portion of the White Book and sign a confidentiality agreement, according to Grist.

This additional agreement reiterates what is written in the White Book about confidentiality.

There is no start or end date on the contract.

Grist said this system is put in place to protect the students involved in an honor investigation or hearing.

“We want to protect everyone who is involved because it’s obviously a very sensitive topic,” Grist said.

Paul Judge, ‘16L, serves as the head hearing advisor—one of the parties asked to uphold confidentiality in closed hearings. His responsibilities include assigning cases to hearing advisors, training new advisors and supervising advisors on strategy, technique and ethics. Judge said he abides by the confidentiality clause, but he said he struggles with it at times.

“It can make it difficult sometimes between the hearing advisors,” Judge said. “It makes it really difficult to share knowledge and information.”
Hearing advisors are bound by the confidentiality clause just as any regular witness would be. They can’t discuss specifics of their cases with other hearing advisors, Judge said.

According to Judge, hearing advisors can speak to each other about cases only when they scrub all personal details, change the facts around and deal strictly in hypotheticals.

There is no room to review what happened in a case once it is completed, Judge said. This inhibits hearing advisors from sharing techniques, tactics and lessons with each other in order to learn from past cases, he said.

“Confidentiality hurts our ability to do that,” Judge said. “But it’s inevitable and it’s just the trade-off that you get.”

Judge tries to collect information to which he has access and generalize it so that it can be used to teach future advisors, but he says learning from cases without detail is difficult. Further, there are very few details for Judge’s position in the White Book. He has learned about his role primarily from observing previous head hearing advisors.

Reliance on “unspoken policy”

“When stuff like ethical issues and client control…come up, I just have to exercise my judgment in compliance with what I think the values of the honor system are,” Judge said.

In the White Book, there is a provision that discusses the hearing advisor program and the role of the head hearing advisor selected by the EC, but few details exist regarding the process and the responsibilities of the hearing advisor program.

“The confidentiality stuff—really a lot of it is just unspoken policy and tradition,” Judge said. “Not a lot of it is written down.”

Judge said he removes all identifying factors of previous cases and compiles a handbook to distribute to new hearing advisors in order to provide them with helpful information and pointers learned from older cases.

“I just kind of do it, because that’s the best way for the system to function and the system would be totally dysfunctional if I couldn’t…access the details on the individual cases,” Judge said. “That would frustrate my ability to be a check on a lot of the possible procedural unfairness.”

But Judge said he struggles to find the best way to do his job in a purposely vague system.

“If you crack open the White Book and try to find specific details about something, you’re not going to find much,” Judge said.

Breaking confidentiality

The White Book contains a clause on confidentiality and harassment that states a standard of confidentiality and gives the EC full discretion on how to handle a confidentiality issue, Grist said.

According to the White Book, those actions vary dramatically and can include, “conduct probation, social probation or suspension, and, depending on the nature of the breach, may also rise to the level of an independent Honor Violation.”

The EC is tasked with determining if a breach of confidentiality is in violation of the community’s trust, just as they are with any allegation of lying, cheating or stealing.

“We’re all sort of afforded the same level of trust, and if someone were to take advantage of that in order to do better [than another community member], that’s where it becomes a violation,” Grist said.

But why does confidentiality play such an important part in our Honor System? According to Grist, it serves as a cushion for the intense single sanction punishment.

“It’s a really heavy penalty to have to leave W&L,” Grist said. “But even if you have to leave and you’re found guilty [in a closed hearing] it just says withdraw on your transcript.”

Confidentiality, then, allows for a student found guilty in a closed hearing to carry on his or her life without prejudice. If he or she wants to apply to another school, Grist said, the violation shouldn’t keep a student from getting in.

“It’s like our way of saying we understand we have a higher burden than most places,” Grist said.

If a future employer, future peer or future school could read about the violation in the paper, they could establish a preconceived idea of who that student is, Grist said. It’s this reason, Grist said, that witnesses, EC members, hearing advisors and all others involved are asked to remain confidential about the closed trial, and the media, including this publication, are prohibited from covering hearings.

“If we take it outside of the community, that really hurts the student a lot.”