An unfortunate incident, a teachable moment

Below is a letter I sent to students and parents of Phillips Academy in response to an unfortunate incident involving a group of our recent graduates.

On Sunday, we celebrated Commencement in our 237th year under blue skies. We graduated 328 exceptional students, capping a fine year at Andover across the board—in the arts, athletics, community service, and academics. These students and their families as well as our faculty and staff have every reason to be proud of the community’s accomplishments this year.

A few hours later, 74 of our new graduates found themselves in protective custody in Sunapee, New Hampshire, for alleged acts at a party in a rented home. According to police reports, 51 of our graduates passed a breathalyzer test; 23 of our graduates did not and, as a result, face a court date in August for underage consumption of alcohol. Fortunately none of our graduates was hurt. All were released to responsible parents and guardians.

We remain proud of all our graduates and what they achieved while at Andover. At the same time, the faculty and I are deeply disappointed about what happened in the hours after graduation. Andover stands for strong values: non sibi, above all, and respect and care for others. I have no doubt our graduates did learn these lessons at Andover, but some of them did not practice them that night. Their actions fell short of what we know to be their best. I hasten to credit those graduates who chose a different path that evening, as well as those parents who supported them in celebrating responsibly.

With the benefit of a few days of reflection, the primary lesson I take away from these events is one of humility. Personally, I realize the limits of my persuasive power and the shortcomings of our efforts to stop this kind of party. A few weeks ago, I stood before all 328 graduating students in Cochran Chapel and told them unequivocally not to host or to attend such a party. On large screens in the chapel, as a cautionary tale, I put up a recent newspaper article about a peer school at which a large number of former students were arrested at a graduation party in northern New England. We sent a clear letter to students and families about graduation week, as we do every year; we held follow-up meetings with students and parents to forestall these events. As we now know, for some students, these efforts did not prevent such an event from taking place.

I hope that our students, too, learn a version of my lesson in humility. To hold an Andover diploma is an extraordinary thing, the symbol of much accomplishment and promise. It does not, however, exempt you from the law or keep you safe from harm. The arc of learning is a long one and not always smooth. If there is a silver lining to be found here, it is that this incident will help to prevent students from making greater mistakes in the future. We suspect that their disappointment in themselves exceeds our own in them. We will help them, however we can, recover from this stumble.

I remain confident that this lapse in judgment does not reflect the true character of the graduating class, nor the values of our school. We are grateful to the New Hampshire police for keeping our graduates safe that night. Over the coming school year, we will redouble our efforts to teach the importance of good decision-making at Andover and of health and wellness. I look forward to the time for reflection that summer affords. And I look forward to beginning our 238th year with a renewed sense of purpose and vigor.

Sincerely,
John Palfrey

12 thoughts on “An unfortunate incident, a teachable moment

  1. I don’t think I agree that 18-year-olds having a party with alcohol violates the non sibi principle (which, years after my graduation, I still hold dear) or other core Andover values. As long as none were driving, or drinking to the point of illness that could endanger them, do their actions cause harm to others? Maybe only if they were being noisy and keeping neighbors awake? I’m willing to be challenged on this by other alums, though.

    • Thanks, Victoria. This is probably a conversation best to be had someplace other than online and in reply to a blog post, but I do think that participating in such a party had negative effects for others — of the sort you mentioned, but also in terms of the risks that these parties pose to kids’ health and well-being and other risks that are raised by the presence of large numbers of kids together with alcohol. So, yes, I stand by my statement about participation in such an event being inconsistent with the version of non sibi we teach at Andover. Please call or email me if you’d like to discuss more, and I can elaborate.

  2. A fine letter, but so easy to disagree. 18 year olds can vote and go to war, but can’t have a beer at home. Silly. I learned to drink at the PA-sanctioned Andover Inn (and at unsanctioned keggers at Pomp’s Pond). I’ve spoken with college presidents and Congressmen and there seems to be a broad, though unspoken, consensus that young people should be exposed to and allowed to drink. Perhaps this is a dialogue Mr. Palfrey should take up, though entirely unlikely.

  3. Thank you, Bud Weiser, for your note. I am not sure why you think it “entirely unlikely” that I should take up such a conversation. Please let me do so in brief here, though. I share the view that we do a terrible job as a society in teaching kids about both alcohol and other drugs. As a general matter, in the United States, we ban it; they do it; and they often break the rules as adolescents. Andover is not immune from these problems and pressures; I am quite certain that we can and should and will improve ourselves. The reason not to drop the drinking age, from my understanding of the public policy debate, is the literature showing the improvement in fewer drunk driving incidents, including deaths, as a result of the higher drinking age. I continue to think that we ought to be able to do more, and better, and it is for that reason that I post such statements to the community in public, as here, even though I don’t wish to shame our wonderful graduates by discussing our community matters unduly in public.

  4. I love that Mr. Palfrey is there. He is right. It’s embarrassing to read that all those Andover kids got arrested for something so dumb. In the nineteen seventies, I was a wild child. I learned a lot of lessons the hard way too. But, hey — none of us got arrested by the police !!! We got arrested by the police when we protested for a cause. We might be drinking — ( the drinking age was 18 then,) but were always impassioned with a larger purpose. For example, Garrett Jewett and Brot Bishop were arrested for telling the police that they needed to read people their rights before they were handcuffed and thrown into the paddy wagon…..( this got them both handcuffed and thrown into the same paddy wagon.) We went to concerts. We celebrated what OTHER people did, more than what we did. We all wanted to grow and be somewhere else and learn more. I think it’s so weird that the police even went to do breathalyzer tests on so many kids in one place. If I were there, I would have high-tailed it out the back door. What were the kids doing that caused the police to come? Nothing good ever comes from over drinking or staying too long after school is out for summer…..best to get on with it and listen to Mr. Palfrey — he is s smart guy and he knows how to not fall into traps or get thrown into paddy wagons. If one good thing came out of this for all those students — it’s that they might not get as tanked as College Freshman and make the mistakes that so many others do the hard way. Slow down PA graduates !!! Don’t be suckers for the illusion of ” cool.” It’s not. John Palfrey IS. And you can bank on his well meaning advice for you — and you should all listen to it. The teachers at Andover can only teach you so much — you need to also learn from others mistakes so you don’t have to make the same ones and have things happen the hard way.

  5. As a former faculty member I applaud both the Chapel warning and John’s letter. We’re often aware that good advice is given but not heeded. However, that is not a good reason to stop trying.

  6. Something like 10% of people who drink alcohol have an alcohol abuse problem. Alcohol is especially bad for the developing brain whether it is the fetus of a mother abusing alcohol or a teenager or young adult in which some of the final connections in the brain are still taking place. If alcohol use has caused one to have significant marital problems, has resulted in arrest or has caused one to lose a job, then you might be considered an alcoholic.
    I disagree with Mr. Palfrey that this is not the place to discuss this problem. Alcoholism is the third most common preventable cause of death in our country. Why can’t our comments be part of this teachable moment? If we show our concern and interest in this subject, then maybe this discussion may take on the same importance as diversity and inclusion. Mr. Palfrey, please feel free to remove my comment if you think it does not belong here.
    Dick Lux, thank you for being an excellent teacher during my first year at PA as an upper middle student. I felt lucky to have many very good to excellent teachers.

    • I should have written “equity and inclusion” not “diversity and inclusion” in paragraph 2.

  7. Mr. Palfrey:

    I found great meaning in your reference to humility. As a PA parent (Hannah ’02…now a rabbi herself, and Emma ’08) the PA experience instills in our kids a feeling of confidence and pride. If they can thrive/survive at Phillips there isn’t a lot they can’t accomplish if they are focused and passionate. On the other hand, with that confidence comes a bit of vanity. I think you struck just the right note in your letter. As you said, thankfully no one was hurt and the New Hampshire police acted with professionalism and competence. You and I know this will happen again, in one form or another. But for students to emerge from this with a tad more humility and perhaps even respect for the advice of their teachers and mentors, that lesson is priceless.

    Sincerely,

    Robert

    Rabbi Robert S. Goldstein
    Temple Emanuel of Andover
    7 Haggetts Pond Road
    Andover, Massachusetts 01810

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