For the Students, By the Students: A Code to Live By

Much like how the mission of Severn School is evident in every classroom, hallway, and playing field, Severn's honor code goes well beyond words on paper.
It is foundational to how students embrace their role in abiding by and demonstrating the school’s culture. And it anchors the community to a common understanding, creating a code to live by.

The current honor code – developed about three years ago – directly reflects this spirit of ownership, leadership, and accountability. But understanding how the honor code came to hold such a prominent position at Severn in the first place requires a look back about two decades, to the start of Doug Lagarde’s tenure as Head of School. At that time, there was no established honor code, nor was there a formal, documented process for resolving conduct issues.

Only a short time after taking the helm, Lagarde rewrote the school's mission statement to better reflect the school's legacy and core beliefs. That strategic look at Severn's culture and values naturally evolved into creating the honor code and an honor court to adjudicate any alleged violations. "The idea of an honor code has always been a part of the ethos of Severn School, but that only gets you so far," said Lagarde. "It was important to re-establish and articulate expectations because students cannot be expected to understand the consequences of violating an unwritten code."

Only Lagarde wanted to do things a little differently. Taking his stand, he insisted that the process should be student-led. “We – the adults – can create these things all we want, but if the students don't see the Honor Code as theirs, then they won't follow it,” he said. “They are the ones who should want to keep it alive.”
“The foundation for all of this was the idea of students taking ownership,” added Marc Buckley, Assistant Upper School Head and Dean of Students, who assisted in developing both the original honor code and the current version. “It was this great opportunity to give students ownership of the honor code and responsibility to adjudicate it.”

Establishing the honor code led to the formal creation of Severn’s Honor Court. This body was – and remains today – comprised of six students and one faculty advisor. And it is student-led. The one faculty member serves in an advisory capacity only and has no vote. When conduct issues arise, and students are brought before the Honor Court, the student leaders are the ones who vote and decide if there has been a violation of the academic code. They also suggest disciplinary consequences.

“We tell them that we want them to lead, so this is us putting our money where our mouth is,” said Buckley. “The philosophy hands the kids the responsibility of holding their peers accountable. It goes hand in hand with some of the language from the previous honor code, which read ‘for the students, by the students,'" he said.

‘It Wasn’t Being Lived’

After that early iteration went unchanged for over a decade, the idea of revising the honor code surfaced again around 2020. This time around, it was a trio of student leaders who advanced the idea. Daniel Babalola ‘21, Chase O’Malley ’22 and JP Meyer ‘22.

Babalola, currently a junior at the University of Pennsylvania, recalls that the seed was first planted at the end of 2019 when Student Council candidates were giving speeches. When a student mentioned that they didn’t feel the honor code represented them, it resonated with others. Buckley agreed, noting that the current version had lost its relevance and impact. “It wasn’t being lived; therefore, it became obsolete," he said. Together, they decided that it was a cause worth pursuing.

“My junior year, we went full swing on it,” said Babalola. “We wanted to generate as much buy-in from the community as possible by getting as much feedback as possible.” To kick things off, Babalola gave a passionate speech to the Upper School. “He essentially said to his fellow students, ‘You need to get behind this,’” said Buckley.

Then, they put together a survey that assessed how students felt about the current Honor Code, how they lived it in their own lives, what they valued about Severn, and what they wished it could be. Several extended advisories were also dedicated to the topic, allowing students to discuss what was important to them and what they valued about their school community. From there, the Student Council leaders and the Prefects sifted through all that feedback and extracted the recurring themes.

“We gathered insights that really hit the post of what the school was interested in,” said Babalola, who was instrumental in synthesizing the community feedback into the final written version. “It was a meticulous process – we went sentence by sentence, breaking down the general ideas that were generated,” he said. “The writing was very intentional. We might spend an entire hour on one sentence.”

After months and months of work and countless Zoom sessions by the student leaders, this effort resulted in two codes: one specific to academics and one focused on community. “This two-part code was the students’ idea,” said Buckley. “They wanted the code to speak to a more inclusive community, as well as academic integrity. They wanted something that was aspirational, not reactionary.”

Once the language was finalized and approved, it was rolled out to the Severn community, and it continues to play a prominent role in the daily lives of the student body.  

Signage bearing the honor code can be found throughout Teel Campus, and at the start of every new school year, there is an Honor Code Ceremony where incoming freshmen, transfer students, and new faculty sign it and agree to act in accordance with this code. “That first signing ceremony after the code was revised was really meaningful to students because they realized that it was something they had created,” said Buckley.
Babalola found it especially rewarding to have a hand in the process from start to finish, as he was part of the rollout his senior year. “It was actually surprising to me that there was such a connection to the honor code and that there was a chance to change it,” said Babalola. “I appreciated the level of interest and buy-in from the community.

"I hope that in the end, it was something that closely reflected what the student body believed to be right – something that resonates with everyone and that students want to live by," he added.

As the Severn community continues to grow and innovate, so too will the honor code. The idea is to examine it closely every few years to ensure it's still relevant. What won’t change is its significance to the community, something that Lagarde set in motion nearly 20 years ago. “What Mr. Lagarde did was to ground the culture of the school in something that mattered,” said Buckley. “I’ve never been in any other school that lives the mission the way we do here. There’s a sense that this place is special, and there is an underlying faith that we have in the students’ ownership and leadership of the school.”

“All language should periodically get fresh eyes and conversation, and for the honor code, the best place to start that is with the students," said Lagarde. "It has become theirs, and that is what is most important."

Severn School Community Code: We, the members of the Severn community, value respect, empathy, and trust. To uphold these virtues we strive to regard others with civility, foster an environment of belonging, and exhibit character of unquestionable integrity.

Severn School Academic Code: As a Severn student, I pledge to value the genuine academic achievement of my peers and of myself, to be accountable for my actions, and preserve the integrity of our academic system.

Lower School

Upper School