Melody Howe ’22
In recent years, Mercersburg Academy has developed the Sanctuary Policy in an effort to prioritize student safety in circumstances involving substance abuse. However, the history of a sanctuary policy and the push to reevaluate the disciplinary process is more complicated than one might think. In the 90s, attempts to reinforce the policy fizzled out; students and faculty soon realized, however, that student health was at stake and advocated for the policy’s improvement.
At times in the school’s history, the policy on alcohol and drugs and the ensuing disciplinary process was conducted on a case-by-case basis, blurring the lines between what was risky and dangerous to students and what was accepted by the system. Allison Stephens, History department member, arrived at Mercersburg before any sanctuary policy existed. She says, “Kids seemed to feel like they had ‘a freebie’ and could use drugs and alcohol until they got caught.” Disciplinary cases occurred regularly and the faculty felt overwhelmed, a situation that resulted in the current required withdrawal policy. At that time the first sanctuary policy was created but its instability and “vulnerability to lawsuits,” as Stephens described it, led to its demise after only one year.
Many students would wrestle when choosing between seeking help for a friend or peer in danger and the consequence of that person’s departure from school. When faculty Emily Schoenberger ‘15 and Phoebe Miller ‘13 attended Mercersburg, the one-strike policy firmly held its weight, and mistakes were instantly punished. As a result, there was a lack of trust between students and authority figures. “Student’s friends were wary of going to a faculty member because they didn’t want their friend to be kicked out,” Schoenberger says. Miller even wrote an English paper on the policy for John David Bennett’s class. She says, “My thoughts were if faculty and staff members are supportive as ‘in loco parentis,’ or the idea that they are acting in place of parents while students are at school, there should be more grace for mistakes.”
Mercersburg’s focus on the detrimental effects of drug abuse and the need to seek help in emergency situations is crucial, which is why former head of school, Katie Titus, and the student council took action. After plenty of workshops, research, and reviewing, those students polished the policy for the future of our community. Proposing a new and finalized procedure, they intended to reduce tensions and provide better security. Chris Howes, assistant head of school for student life and culture says, “The idea was to provide a system where students could get help for themselves or others… The hope is that then students would more likely seek help when help is needed.”
The Sanctuary Policy, which prioritizes positive growth rather than shame, inspires smarter decision-making and encourages students to be accountable and responsible for themselves and their friends. Clark Bayer ‘22 says, “Mercersburg created a great way for students to protect each other.” Adolescents are prone to making poor decisions and seeking support from faculty or the Health and Wellness Center shows that there are safer options.