Massachusetts high school newspaper exposes lack of true student representation in town school committee

MASSACHUSETTS — Fed up with student voices being silenced in the town school committee, a Dartmouth High School newspaper editorial accused administrators of unlawfully picking and coaching student advisory committee representatives.

The article, “Students argue for more free speech at DHS,” published in The Spectrum, raised concerns over whether Dartmouth students truly had any influence in their town school committee. The committee is comprised of elected officials that make important decisions regarding Dartmouth, such as sending students to conferences and setting the school’s budget.

Amy Koczera, author of the editorial and co-editor-in-chief of The Spectrum, accused administrators at Dartmouth of breaking the law by personally selecting student representatives instead of letting students vote on who will represent them. Section 38M of Massachusetts General Law Chapter 71 on Public Schools requires school committees of cities, towns and regional school districts meet with a student advisory committee consisting of five members elected by the student body. It states the elected students will select one chairperson to be an ex-officio, nonvoting member of the school committee.

The editorial argues Dartmouth administrators are taking that right away from their students.

Though the law clearly states, “the members of such student advisory committees shall, by majority vote prior to the first day of June each year elect from their number a chairperson who will serve for a term of one year,” Koczera said no such voting practice occurs at Dartmouth — but that representatives are selected by administrators and only serve sporadically.

Dartmouth Principal John Gould told the South Coast Today the school has representatives rotate each meeting so that they can “share the experience,” but didn’t address why students don’t elect their advisory members.

But that is not the biggest problem, Koczera argues.

She also claims that Dartmouth Dean Janice Sharp coached the representatives prior to every school committee meeting, urging them not to say “anything negative” about the school.

“They were told only to share the good things about our school and not to talk about issues or concerns because the School Committee does not want to hear about those,” Koczera wrote.

Thus, she argued, the legitimate concerns of students regarding their school are squashed. Issues such as the potential switch from block-scheduling to a rotating period and the status of a “lunch show” have gone without mention.

Instead, the agenda for meetings is spent on benign topics, like a new bulletin board being put up in the front of the school.

Sharp denied putting any pressure on the student representatives. She said the purpose of the role is to give the school committee an update on the school and suggests students talk about that.

Quoted in the article are several students serving on the Dartmouth Student Council who think the administration is even blocking their attempts to express opinions internally.

Typically, the Principal Advisory committee, comprised of student leaders in the school, would report concerns voiced at Student Council meetings to administrators. But Koczera claims the administration decided to add different students to this group and provide their own agenda to fill the meeting time.

One student argues that Gould and Sharp implemented this change to carry out their independent agendas, instead of listening to frustrations of the members.

“It’s basically just the administration bringing to us what they’ve done and asking our opinion, but we have no say in it,” Senior Class President Bryce Boswell told Koczera. “It seems like the changes they are making are to suit the administrators, not the students.”

Koczera asked for her fellow students voices’ to be heard instead of ignored.

“It frequently happens to us as student leaders that the administration says they are open to change, but once we are actually conversing with them about the topic, we soon realize that it’s their way or the highway,” she wrote.