Community roles reversed in Waterford High School case study

Waterford — Students as school administrators. School administrators as students. Cops as rule-breakers.

Community roles were reversed Monday at Waterford High School, as 22 students and eight adults — six of whom are teachers/administrators, two of whom are Waterford police officers — took part in a case study led by Dr. Carl Hobert, a professor at Boston University and an expert in conflict resolution.

The exercise came about because Hobert pitched it to Waterford High School, and the school was receptive. He had returned to the U.S. from a long stint in Rwanda assisting in sociopolitical conflict resolution and was enjoying a sabbatical at his brother's Niantic vacation home. He chose the nearest school, and he will use what he learned Monday in his latest research.

"I was working out in Niantic, there's this Anytime Fitness, and I would get these epiphanies," Hobert said. "It was really my brain becoming more creative when I didn't have to focus on what was going on in Rwanda. I got at something people could relate to, especially in the state of Connecticut, where this debate over marijuana is going on."

The case study gave students and adults a scenario full of moral implications. The characters were three high school students, a high school teacher, a school principal and a police officer. The initial setting was a high school party one week before graduation hosted by a student, Samantha Jacobson, and her mom, Emily Griffith-Jacobson. Jacobson was allowed to use medical marijuana because she has epilepsy.

Two senior boys, John Erickson and Mike Edwards, co-captains of the football team and best friends, were in attendance. A police officer, Tom Edwards, who happens to be Mike's dad, arrived at the party and arrested Erickson for possession of marijuana — Erickson was rolling a joint from Jacobson's stash. Erickson was the valedictorian of the class, a star athlete and slated to attend an Ivy League school. Mike Edwards was in the back of the party and might have been doing something illegal, as well.

The questions participants had to consider were, 1) Who is guilty? Is it the mom for hosting the party? Jacobson for leaving the pot for Erickson to roll? Erickson? 2) What should the penalty be? Should anyone let Erickson's Ivy League school know? Should he be allowed to walk in graduation? Should he give the graduation speech? Should anyone else be punished? And 3) Who makes the decision? A judge? The principal?

Teams of five to six people represented each character in the story. Police Officers Megan Sylvestre and Oxana Krodel were assigned to represent Erickson and Mike Edwards, respectively. Principal Andre Hauser was on Jacobson's team. Samuelson was on Erickson's team. It was an opportunity to see the other side of matters, Hauser and Samuelson said.

The different characters spent several rounds negotiating with each other to determine answers. Four students, including junior Sofia Brunaccioni, were put in the position of being the fictional principal, Dr. Jennifer Williams, and trying to find an agreement with their real principal, Hauser, who was acting as Erickson.

"What I found interesting was having to be someone else and sticking to that character, because whether I thought something else than the principal thought, I tried to say what I thought she would be saying," Brunaccioni said. "We disagreed whether he should speak or not, and I felt that he shouldn't speak, because as a community you don't want someone speaking in front of a really big graduation who just got arrested for possession of marijuana. 'Great job, valedictorian!' That's a little iffy, and that's where we battled a lot."

Assistant Principal Kirk Samuelson organized the event and took lead on it for the school. He agreed with Hobert that the case study taught students how to use their intellect in day-to-day life. He also reflected on how he had to be the opposite of his usual disciplinarian position.

Samuelson gathered together students from Waterford's Young Leadership Group. Advisors of the group, math teacher Mike Ellis and social studies teacher Lisa Virtue, also were part of the exercise. Samuelson said he knew this group of students would be engaged. He hopes to open case studies like this to other students in the future.

Hobert also wants to widen this type of education through social media. He and Samuelson said this is the first case study of its kind in Connecticut. Hobert said critical thinking is imperative, even if it seems advanced for high school students, in an age of teaching to the standardized test.

"It also helps our intelligence community when we teach kids more effectively when they're young about local problems, national problems and international problems," Hobert said. "These are kids we keep an eye on for the U.S. intelligence community, especially those who speak other languages."

Senior Owen Seltzer thought the activity gave depth to decisions made by students and adults. "For students, it showed how quick decisions can change everything," he said.

Senior Sonia Magano said she learned a lesson of empathy.

"I know a lot of people when they argue, myself included, are set in their ways and not willing to look at the other side of the issue, so I think I'm more willing to hear someone else's perspective," she said. "It was hard to separate yourself from feeling personally attacked by other people when really it's not personal, it's a simulation."

As the day concluded, Hobert asked participants if they thought there would be a party like the one in the case study later this year. An officer, Sylvestre, responded.

"All the time!" she said. "And we always know!"

s.spinella@theday.com

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