The Student Handbook is given to students at the beginning of each year. However, as is presumably the case at other boarding schools, due to the handbook’s dense language, students may not read it closely and therefore have a limited understanding of the school’s rules. The handbook contains a large amount of information relating to school policy and is a living document. I sought to examine its ins and outs in order to be more knowledgeable about school policy.
Overall, the handbook is fairly straightforward and not hard to understand. There are some areas that are a little more complex, but the most important things are the three levels of disciplinary action: Conduct Warning, Conduct Probation, and suspension or expulsion. Ultimately, if you use common sense, you should not have a problem following the rules. They range from no bullying to not stealing– pretty self-explanatory. However, there were several parts of the handbook that I was still not clear on, so I talked to Mr. Pagotto about some of the particulars.
Ryan Green: What is the reasoning for having various levels of discipline and why don’t we just go on a case-by-case basis?
Mr. Pagotto: The three levels indicate a varying degree of severity of the behavior, Level One being most serious. It’s a framework that has been helpful to me [as Associate Head of School], Mr. Mazza [as Dean of Students], and Mr. Sykes, as Rules and Discipline Committee chairman, in thinking about the gravity of different types of behavior. We always review discipline incidents on a case-by-case basis, and when it is not clear which level a rule violation might fall into, we turn to the Rules and Discipline Committee.
RG: Why is there a section at the beginning of the handbook about how it can be changed at any time?
RP: The school must reserve the right to amend or update the handbook during the school year if an incident deems a change necessary. It is very rare that we make changes or updates to the handbook during the school year, but it is always possible. In the event a change is deemed necessary, we always communicate the policy update to the community at School Meeting and via email. Adolescent behavior is ever-evolving, as is our society. The one mid-year change I can remember is when students began purchasing hoverboards and reports of them catching fire were made. We updated the handbook to reflect that hoverboards could not be used on campus, given the danger they presented.
RG: How do you think students could better know the contents of the handbook? A lot of students are not aware of the specifics.
RP: Well, we created a 2-page version of the handbook about five years ago and have visited dormitories during the first two weeks of the school year for a rules review presentation which has included information about laws in the state of New Jersey, common rule violations, and the school’s Safety First policy. I think these small group presentations have helped with general knowledge of rules and expectations. Perhaps in-depth conversations at the dorm level would help improve awareness as well.
RG: How do rules get added to or changed in the handbook?
RP: If an issue arose in which we felt we might need to amend the handbook, we would normally review with a couple of groups of faculty, such as the monitors and the housemasters. The other group we might engage to review would be the Rules and Discipline Committee. This group meets in the spring of each year to review rules for the following year and make suggestions or recommendations for changes.
RG: What is the most important thing you think students should know about the handbook?
RP: That they are responsible for understanding the expectations outlined in the handbook. Truly. When students choose to be a member of this community, they are agreeing to abide by all of the expectations and rules. That is a contractual obligation between the school and students/parents. Similarly, all faculty members have a responsibility to abide by the expectations of the faculty handbook. When students take on their first job, the expectation will be that they understand their employee handbook.
Mr. Pagotto summed up the handbook and the responsibilities of the student body by explaining that the most important thing about the handbook is the Level One offenses. If a student commits a Level One violation, he or she is liable for dismissal from school. However, the school’s goal is never to expel students, but rather to help them understand what they did wrong and how best to move forward. Of course, if a student’s behavior is deemed to have too negative an impact on the school then they will be expelled. That is why repeat offenses are taken so much more seriously.
Additionally, students are expected to read the handbook. Just like when you take a job offer and have to read the workplace rules, when you accept an invitation to study at Blair, you have to read the school rules. By coming to Blair you are signing a social contract and it makes sense to know what you are agreeing to.
The rules are subject to circumstance and are not always followed by the book in every case (especially if the case is complex).
The biggest factor in disciplinary matters seems to be honesty. A small offense coupled with dishonesty is much larger than just the offense itself.
Blair vs. Peddie:
In order to more effectively understand Blair’s handbook I also read the Peddie handbook. I found a lot of similarities between the two, but ultimately the biggest differences were in style and language. Our handbook was a lot simpler to understand and had more general content. Peddie went into more specifics on a lot of issues. Blair allows administrators and the Rules and Discipline Committee more flexibility than Peddie seems to, and the details of a specific case seem to have more bearing at Blair. Honesty also seems to play a far bigger role in discipline at Blair than at Peddie.
Peddie and Blair also have different degrees of strictness on particular issues. For example, Blair has a less rigid policy on freedom of internet use, while Peddie describes online issues such as logging into someone else’s computer as akin to stealing someone else’s identity more concretely.
Overall, the handbooks function very similarly, but Blair’s seems more designed for students to read while Peddie’s more complex style seems geared more towards parents and faculty. In comparison, it was hard for me to get through Peddie’s handbook, whereas Blair’s handbook took an hour for me to read and understand from start to finish. Blair’s handbook is actually very accessible for students if they take a small amount of time to read it.
The Most Confusing Policies:
The part of the Blair handbook that is most confusing to the student body is probably the section relating to sexual intimacy between students. The school’s stance is somewhat complex. The school does not allow sexual activity while under school jurisdiction. If students are caught engaging in sexual activity, they are technically violating the school rules. However, the school handles the cases more as a matter of health and wellness than as a disciplinary one. Students’ parents are informed of any incident, but students do not get anything put on their record. It is somewhat different from all other acts of breaking school rules, but it is still discouraged and disallowed.
The use of illegal substances and their level of punishment was another part of the rulebook that I looked into. Different substances can get you into different amounts of trouble, but the major difference is whether the substance is age-restricted or illegal. Substances that are illegal in the state of New Jersey, such as marijuana, carry much harsher punishments than substances that are restricted by age, such as alcohol. Possession or use of marijuana can result in expulsion. However, in the case of alcohol, students are given a second chance.
Students who test positive for substances, but are not found in possession or in the presence of substances, must take a medical leave and sign a non-use contract upon returning to school. If a student who has signed a non-use contract is found in possession of substances, they are liable for expulsion.
I also discovered a bunch of rules that are in the handbook but not heavily enforced. For example, if you are at a sports game and take off your shirt, you are technically breaking the school’s rules. However, many people go to games and do just that. As it doesn’t really affect the school’s safety, it very often slides. I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone get in trouble for that.
Additionally, when you are on off-campus trips with the school, you still have to be in dress code according to the handbook. I can’t imagine students going to Dorney Park or San Gennaro in dress code. I think the central belief behind this rule is that students should represent the school well wherever they are. However, wearing sweatpants one day when you’re on a school trip to an amusement park or in New York City doesn’t seem to be a matter of concern for students or the adults who enforce Blair’s rules.
As Mr. Pagotto said, the process of reevaluating rules is transparent and involves both Blair’s students and faculty. As a result, the rules are somewhat easier for the students to understand.
If you want more of a say in disciplinary policies, I would suggest nominating yourself for a position on the Rules and Discipline Committee, which is responsible for making recommendations to the Head of School on cases and suggesting and evaluating edits to the Student Handbook. The Academic Honor Committee is responsible for handling cases involving student dishonesty in relation to academics.
Ultimately, it is very important for students to read the handbook. It gives us better knowledge of the rules at Blair, some of which are complex and need to be better understood by the student body. By reading the handbook, students are taking a step toward knowing the expectations of the community better and, perhaps more importantly, their own rights.