By Rebecca Lally
The students who care the most about Student Council elections are invariably La Chat’s youngest. Indeed as we grow older our enthusiasm for this little democracy wanes. Apart from the suggestion elections are a popularity contest, the most pervasive complaint is of the Student Council being useless. Amongst secondary students there is near consensus on this point; the student council’s ‘uselessness’ is the butt of many jokes.
‘The Student Council does not deliver on promises, listen to what students want, or do anything, really.’ Harsh as these claims may be, they aren’t without basis. Last year we were promised a change in BDN location, fans, phone and laptop chargers, back support on science lab stools, more tables, and tampon dispensers in girls’ bathrooms. Of these promises only the first came into fruition.
The argument StuCo members are incompetent, or simply ‘not trying hard enough’, is bolstered by the fact that speeches were vetted by the school administration last year. These campaign promises were confirmed to be realistic, and StuCo still couldn’t make them happen. I don’t mean to single out last year’s candidates (their promises being the most realistic to date!) but broken promises form the basis of almost any complaint.
Still, the suggestion StuCo fails because its members are incompetent or lazy doesn’t sit well with me. Student Councils are regarded with hostility no matter how much they accomplish; it would be facile to ignore the many possible explanations.
I’m inclined to believe students’ expectations are too high. The ‘Student Council’ is a small group of Y12 students, balancing StuCo responsibilities with the demands of the IB, other extracurriculars, and a social life. As one former member put it, “People largely overestimate the power and time the Student Council has.” With these things borne in mind, StuCo’s achievements are more reasonable.
Might expectations be misdirected, as well as too high? Several former members felt StuCo was unfairly presented as an ‘agent of change,’ giving students the wrong idea of what StuCo ‘should’ be doing. The Student Council’ main responsibilities are organising the Bal des Neiges and a few spirit days, and fulfilling smaller responsibilities like finding performers for assemblies. They shouldn’t be given grief for failing to bring large-scale change, something no previous council has actually done.
One might argue StuCo members set these expectations themselves by making unrealistic promises, begging the question, why do candidates make them in the first place? Most that I spoke to felt it was a matter of naivety; “I remember genuinely thinking I was going to implement change”, one put it. Future candidates should perhaps show more restraint in making promises, and the administration vet these promises more thoroughly, but the student body too must accept responsibility.
“Students need to do a better job of being realistic and conscientious voters,” said a former member, making a fair point. By voting in the candidates who make the best promises, we put them in a situation where making ‘appealing’ promises is a necessity. It is students who uphold this culture of making promises before considering their feasibility.
Expectations to the side, when judging the Student Council students should consider the difficulties the job entails. Every former StuCo member I spoke to complained of bureaucracy in the school making it difficult to bring change. In the words of a former member, “StuCo was always working at seemingly insignificant things, like trying to find performers for assemblies, instead of working on delivering promises.”
Most former members I spoke to understood why the StuCo was perceived as useless, but felt the work they did do went unnoticed. As one put it, “the idea that StuCo does ‘nothing’ in my experience was not the case at all, rather it is constant work behind the scenes.” Consider the Bal des Neiges, StuCo’s biggest responsibility each year. The event’s organisation is an immense job but, when it unfolds without a hitch, it is never recognized as a triumph on the Student Council’s part!
On the rare occasion someone defends the Student Council, blame generally falls on the administration, cited as ‘getting in the way’. While many felt this claim held true, several former members went in a different direction, characterizing the issue as ‘a lack of willingness to help.’
As explained by one of these members, “There was approval but no helping hand. Ideas that required more than a couple of 17-year-olds were difficult because adults weren’t willing to give us their time to help us achieve our goals.” If the Student Council is to be successful the administration must do more to help, or otherwise, when vetting campaign promises, make a distinction between ‘technically possible’ and ‘possible for a small group of teenagers, without any adult help’.
It may also be time to question how valid the premise of this article is. The Student Council seems useless, but the way we see the Council is very likely warped. Complaints of uselessness usually crop up after unpopular changes are made in school. While the controversy over gender-neutral bathroom is the most recent example, it is not the first time something of the sort has happened.
Back in September 2015, just after introducing laptops to campus, the Administration banned technology from the cafeteria, opened the mezzanine to younger students, and, a little later, banned headphones. These changes were unpopular, but it was the Student Council, and not the Administration, who bore the brunt of students’ vitriol. For context: the Student Council had come to power just weeks earlier, could not have stopped these rules if they wanted to, and still council members were treated like it was their fault entirely.
The gender-neutral bathroom controversy serves as a modern-day parallel. Many students weren’t aware it was the Director General who decided to introduce gender neutral bathrooms, not the La Chat StuCo. Though it wasn’t ‘their fault’, this year’s council made a genuine effort to improve communication, organising a debate where students could make their concerns heard.
These efforts were not acknowledged when the Student Council again bore the brunt of students’ anger, and was subjected to brutal criticism on multiple social media platforms. The Student Council being scapegoated over unpopular policy changes might not be the main reason for its poor reputation, but has no doubt worsened it.
Most former StuCo members I spoke to felt the student body was overly cynical, one saying: “I couldn’t do anything right. Whatever I did was the wrong thing, or not enough.” There is a tendency to turn on the Student Council when things go wrong, to criticize their failures while overlooking their successes. The Student Council lacks the support of the students; how can they be successful in representing us?
The current system is rife with problems, but this doesn’t mean you should accept them. The administration is aware of these issues and it is hoped changes made this year* will address the issue of elections being a ‘popularity contest’. There are a lot of things holding the Student Council back, but it is an adjustment in both attitude and expectations on the student body’s part that is most needed. With elections less than a week away, I encourage readers to vote responsibly, and hope next year’s Student Council is more successful than its predecessors.
*This year candidates will run not for positions (e.g. ‘president’ or ‘treasurer’), but for 4 positions on an ‘executive council’.
Disclaimer: This article was not written to dismiss the efforts of student councils, former or present, villainize the school administration, nor blame any one group of people. It is also not targeting any one student council; the issue is pervasive and this article should have been written years ago. I spoke to several former members of the Student Council; almost all wished to remain anonymous due to the sensitive nature of the issue.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and are not necessarily endorsed by The Update.