Honor Council focuses on education, not punishment

Walker’s Upper School Honor System is core to students’ high school experience. It is why you won’t find locks on lockers, why students feel at ease leaving their backpacks unsupervised outside the cafeteria while they eat lunch and most of all, why teachers trust students to work independently.

“The Honor Council is central to educating students about how to complete their academic work with integrity and interact with others with honesty,” said Michael Arjona, Assistant Head of School for Academics. “A Walker education is just as much about building students' character and helping them navigate the complex set of ethical dilemmas they will face as it is delivering content. We help our students understand that we can be in environments with high levels of trust, like Walker, but it requires us to hold ourselves to high standards of honor.”

The Honor Council consists of students from grades 9-12 who are elected by their peers. The council itself elects the president and vice president out of those chosen for the council. This year, seniors Charlie Rossitch and Tate Harrison were elected president and vice president, respectively. 

Other members include: senior Zoya Goel, juniors Riley Eckstrom, Helaina Landrum, Zixuan (Kelvin) Lin, sophomores Anjali Kanuru and Matt Rossitch and freshman Ayan Goel.

“It feels good to know that my classmates view me as an honorable person and someone who is capable of keeping honor important at the school,” Charlie said. 

Tate said he, too, was honored to be elected: “I’ve been on the Honor Council since my freshman year. The Honor Code is one of the reasons our learning environment is so productive – the trust between teachers and the students – that’s one of the reasons why we’re such a good college prep school in my opinion.”

Steve Killian has been the Honor Council faculty advisor for more than a decade. When he began his connection with the council, he worked with faculty and students to revamp the structure. The group consulted honor codes and pledges from schools such as the United States Military Academy West Point, University of Virginia, Haverford College and other college preparatory schools. 

The main purpose of the Honor Council is to educate Upper School students about the Walker Honor Code:
  1. I will be truthful in what I say.
  2. My work that I turn in is my own.
  3. I will respect other people’s property.
  4. I will strive to hold my classmates accountable for the first three.

The Code is so important to the Upper School that at the beginning of each school year, the entire Upper School gathers – usually in the Coca-Cola Auditorium – to participate in the Honor Convocation. During the ceremony, students and faculty hear speeches from members of the Honor Council about what the Honor Code is, why it is important to the school and what they can do themselves and for others to ensure the Code is upheld.

After the speeches and in a rare moment of complete silence, students file down to the front of the auditorium where tables are set up for each grade with books for them to sign that they will honor the code. Students sign in the same book each year, and the president of the senior class is responsible for bringing the book with them to alumni events, Killian said.  

“If you come from a different school or something we want to make sure we’re on the same page,” Tate said. “That’s part of what the honor convocation is about. It’s a serious time where we want to make sure everyone understands the principles and what it’s all about.”

“Anybody who has never seen the convocation before walks away impressed,” Killian said.

That’s not to say there aren’t slip-ups throughout the year, though they are very infrequent, Killian said. The Honor Council will hear issues of academic dishonesty, lying and theft. 

Killian and members of the Honor Council are quick to point out that they are not a disciplinary committee (the Upper School has that, too, for other issues).

“We help people – students and staff – understand that these are the principles of the honor system, and we are going to hold each other accountable for them,” Killian said. “We don’t talk about punishment but consequences.”

“We want to influence students in a positive way to understand how their actions may affect other people and their relationships with them,” Charlie said. “We want what’s best for everybody. By having the Honor Council and the Honor Code, we’re here to guide people to make the best decisions.”

Killian said, “Sometimes our conversations with students will go on as long as an hour to help them understand what they did was wrong and how they can fix it. And that’s a luxury. It is a reflection of the dedication of the kids in the room who care about that educational component and their concern for the student in front of them.”

He said the Council meets with eight to 15 students a year. Some are more receptive to the Council’s message than others, but most eventually embrace the values the Council tries to impart. 

Killian said he taught a student as a senior who had gone before the Council for cheating as a sophomore. “The student pulled me aside after one of my classes and said ‘being caught cheating was one of the best things that ever happened to me in my life. I now understand what it means to be an honorable person, and it’s a lesson I’m going to take with me for the rest of my life.’ ”

Killian said Walker’s Honor Code works because “We are super blessed here to have really decent kids with really supportive parents. It’s that natural resource that makes our Honor Code feasible.” 
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The Walker School is a private, co-ed day school offering opportunities in academics, arts, and athletics for preschool, elementary, middle, and high school students in Metro Atlanta.