ARISTA’s 2020 Stole Policy Creates Controversy

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Issue 17, Volume 110

By Talia Kahan, Maddy Andersen, Karen Zhang, Erin Lee 

Conflict between ARISTA leaders and members emerged in the ARISTA Facebook group on June 9 after senior and Events Committee member Alex Tran posted to the group, speaking out against the revised graduation stole policy. The policy was announced on June 1 by the ARISTA Executive Council (EC), consisting of seniors President Mina Ivkovic, Vice President of Events Jeremy Lee, Vice President of Operations Caroline Magdolen, and Vice President of Web Development Hilary Zen. In order to remain an ARISTA member, students must obtain a certain number of event and tutoring credits each semester. Though stoles are traditionally given to ARISTA members who complete all their credit requirements in the second semester of their senior year, in light of the pandemic, the policy was revised to apply to the first semester instead, upsetting several seniors who had planned to fulfill the second semester requirements but did not fulfill the first semester requirements. The conflict escalated with additional comments and posts from seniors, the EC, and Faculty Advisor Eric Wisotsky, until post commenting was turned off and posts regarding the situation were deleted from the group.

ARISTA, Stuyvesant’s honor society, follows a three-strike policy: if a member receives a total of three or more strikes, which are carried over between semesters, he or she is removed from the organization. Members may receive strikes by failing to meet event or tutoring requirements or not completing logistical tasks, such as signing in and out of events. Generally, many seniors do not fulfill their credit requirements during their first semester due to the time-consuming nature of college applications but remain members, since most do not earn three strikes. During their second semester, many seniors, roughly 30 per year, fulfill the credit requirements and therefore receive a stole.

In ARISTA’s adjusted policy, stoles were awarded to members who had fulfilled event and tutoring credits—or had shown a remarkable effort to do so—during the first semester of senior year. The EC lowered these requirements from the original ones released in September, in deference to seniors’ intense workload during their first semester and inability to have anticipated the abrupt change in the policy. General members were thus required to complete a total of 21 event credits and five tutoring credits instead of the original 26 event credits and seven tutoring credits. Last year, second semester seniors were required to complete 36 events credits and 20 tutoring credits.

Though other options were considered, the EC and Wisotsky felt that the adjusted first-semester policy was the fairest for distributing stoles. “We discussed the idea of every graduating senior receiving a stole, [but] after reviewing the profiles of each senior, it was clear that several were not even close to becoming eligible,” Wisotsky said in an e-mail interview. “We are confident that every graduating ARISTA member in good standing who deserves a stole received one. We are talking about a very small number of students whose actions denied themselves a stole.”

Seniors, however, were frustrated by the change. “I felt that it was unfair to first semester seniors who were struggling to get through college app season, which is arguably the most difficult semester. We had no idea this policy would be implemented during [the] first semester, so many people, including myself, planned accordingly,” Tran said.

ARISTA members were also frustrated that the revised stole policy was announced on June 1, with less than a month to virtual graduation. “I was really [upset] because it really reflects a lack of communication and convenient timing. Between March 16, when schools were officially closed, and June 1, there were no updates given regarding the distribution and requirements for senior stoles,” Tran said.

The EC initially did not plan to mail stoles to seniors because they had hoped that Stuyvesant would be back in school in time for an in-person graduation. Once they realized this would not be the case, they began planning for a mail-order distribution of stoles. “The announcement came late because the original scenario that we had planned out did not involve sending out stoles. When we came into school for the last time, we had [no] idea that it would be the last time,” the EC said. “We didn’t reach out to ARISTA as a whole about it because we didn’t have a set timeline, and it's hard to say ‘Hi, things are happening, but we don’t know when they’re happening.’”

Originally, the EC had access to only 52 stoles left over from previous years, which they were able to retrieve from the building through Director of Family Engagement Dina Ingram and the Parents’ Association. The EC also ordered additional stoles through the administration for a total of 64 stoles sent out to eligible seniors. The EC gave up their own stoles so that more ARISTA members could receive one.

Seniors, who had e-mailed the EC without receiving a response about the revised stole policy, commented on Tran’s post. “A good group of us e-mailed, expressing concern over how unfair the policy was, and none of us received a reply from the EC […] I never received a response, which for me, I thought was expected in some ways. And I didn’t want it to end there, so when Alex made his post, I expressed support over it,” senior Grace Mao, who was not eligible to receive a stole, said. “Alex’s post wasn’t targeted at anyone. I thought it was worded really well that it was to the EC—it was very formal. It wasn’t like accusations or anything; it was just expressing complaints.”

The EC, on the other hand, noted that the policies for stoles and other ARISTA regulations were available on their website and felt there was no need for further discussion. “Students felt that their entitlement was justified for several reasons, and the reality is that our policies are clearly outlined on our site,” the EC said. “Even though they may say something is true or may take it as fact, everything can be double checked on our site.”

Wisotsky later became involved in the conflict after he was added to the ARISTA Facebook group once Tran made his post. Many seniors were alarmed, believing Wisotsky should not have been allowed in the group. “Watching the way that the [EC] and faculty advisor responded to this was really upsetting because the ARISTA group has always been public and student-run,” senior Kelsey Xu said. “I don’t know how appropriate it is for a teacher to be in a student group, like I am pretty sure there are DOE standards against that.”

According to Department of Education (DOE) regulations, “In order to maintain a professional and appropriate relationship with students, DOE employees should not communicate with students who are currently enrolled in DOE schools on personal social media sites.” In addition, Student Union President Vishwaa Sofat said, “[The] administration should not have access to [communication with students through] social media. We hope that the administration takes action to prevent this in the future.”

According to Principal Eric Contreras, however, these DOE regulations permit faculty members to be in groups that are part of a school club’s function. “Whatever happens in the school classroom in terms of faculty oversight extends into that digital space if it's a function of a school activity,” he said.

After posting, Wisotsky deleted both Tran’s and Mao’s posts and turned off commenting on his own. “I feel we are being censored […] now if you look at the ARISTA group, besides Wisotsky’s own post, it’s as if this didn’t happen; it’s as if nothing happened,” Mao said. “That doesn’t seem fair in any way because we’ve always used the Facebook group as a means of communication. It doesn't seem right that they can just add an authority figure, and he can go about his day and just try to erase the issue and bring it back to private; when in reality, it involves the entire society.”

According to the EC, however, the comments made in the Facebook group were inappropriate, which subsequently led to Wisotsky’s involvement. “There were comments of a personal nature that were alarming to him, not just as a faculty advisor, not just as a teacher, but as a dean, so […] he followed standard protocol of any Stuyvesant faculty member,” the EC said.

Wisotsky added in an e-mail interview, “The ARISTA Facebook group is […] not a place for airing grievances or discussing individual issues […] when students are targeted [by] public ridicule and intimidation in a student organization, be it in person or online in the official social media group of a sanctioned Stuyvesant organization, it is necessary for the faculty advisor to intervene.”

Many seniors felt the issue regarding the stoles emerged from a systemic problem of lack of communication and transparency in ARISTA over the past years. Though many had voiced their concerns through e-mails, they ultimately did not see much change. “In the past, I know I discussed many issues privately with the ARISTA, various ARISTA e-mails, and nothing was really done about them,” Xu said. “E-mailing them doesn't get any effect. Nothing gets done in [e-mail]. That’s been seen over and over again over the last two years.”

Another point of contention between seniors and the EC has been the lack of transparency regarding how membership dues—which were $50 last year and $55 the previous year—are used. “$55 is a lot for dues. At our initial orientation, they told us that dues would cover the cost of the shirts and a gold stole for graduation,” Xu said. “That is so much money for students, especially for a school that has so many low-income students. That’s just one of those transparency issues because they never state where that money is going beyond a shirt and a stole—a stole for which is not guaranteed.”

In the spring of 2019 though, ARISTA subsidized the $50 dues for students who qualified for free or reduced lunch to $15 and $30, respectively. “Every single year we say, ‘If you have an issue paying dues, the first thing you should do is reach out to us,’ because we really seriously feel that money shouldn’t be a barrier from entering ARISTA,” the EC said.

The EC clarified that dues are spent on “stoles, shirts, and etc.” but declined to elaborate on what “etc.” entails besides meals for Parent Teacher Conference volunteers and administrative expenses. The EC stated, however, that ARISTA members may freely reach out to them to know how the budget is used. “We can’t really discuss what we use our money for outside of the organization. We’ve emphasized multiple times over [e-mail] and at the general meetings that any member who had questions about anything about how their money was being used [could reach] out to us,” they said.

ARISTA members’ issues with the organization have led them to feel that it has failed to uphold its mission statement. “This whole event is such a clear example of ARISTA not prioritizing the mindset behind volunteer work and what ARISTA is supposed to stand for because their pillars are character, leadership, scholarship, [and service],” Xu said. “The entire EC and Wisotsky’s behavior and reaction to this just felt very unprofessional and very, very closed off.”

As the 2020-2021 ARISTA President, junior Emma Donnelly hopes to improve communication and make ARISTA more transparent. “The problem with the stoles situation was that we communicated too late to the ARISTA members about how the stoles were going to be distributed, and there wasn’t a lot of clarity as to why they made this decision and how many people would be affected by it,” she said. “In the future, we just need to lay the facts out straight to the ARISTA members and make sure they know the reasoning behind our decision.”