Penn Model Congress trip off due to ‘egregious’ behavior on Princeton trip

CANCELLED: Shalhevets Model Congress team won 15 awards at Penn last year, above.

Courtesy of Sarah Soroudi

CANCELLED: Shalhevet’s Model Congress team won 15 awards at Penn last year, above.

Administrators have cancelled this year’s annual Penn Model Congress trip due to student misbehavior on an earlier debate trip, effectively cancelling a whole semester of the one of the school’s most popular co-curriculars.

Head of School Rabbi Ari Segal told the team at a closed lunchtime meeting Dec. 5 that behavior on last month’s Princeton Model Congress trip in Washington D.C. was “egregious,” and so they would be barred from going to Penn, scheduled for March in Philadelphia.

“This trip requires the most trust in the team, and it was the biggest violation we’ve ever had,” said Rabbi Segal.

At the meeting, team members admitted to having held what amounted to a wrestling match on hotel beds after curfew.  They said about 20 students were in a boys’ hotel room, boys wrestling boys and girls wresting girls, with everyone watching.

To win, the wrestler had to pin the opponent down and hold him or her there while others in the room counted to five, the editors said.

No one was hurt, and it’s not clear how the administration found out about it.  Rabbi Segal and Principal Noam Weisman, who told the team together that Penn was being cancelled, declined to be interviewed for this article.

“Discipline is not something I’m going to discuss with anyone aside from the members of the team,” said Rabbi Segal via e-mail to a Boiling Point reporter.

That refusal also made it impossible to verify that a wrestling event in a bedroom after curfew was the reason for the suspension. But several Boiling Point editors are members of the debate team and attended the meeting.

But at the debate team meeting, Rabbi Segal said other punishments had been considered and were rejected – among them, having boys and girls stay in different hotels, prohibiting certain people from attending the trip, or not allowing any free time.

Since so many students broke the rules, canceling the trip was the only appropriate response, he said.

“We considered lots of other options, but this was just so egregious,” said Rabbi Segal at the meeting.

There are six Model Congress conferences nationally each year, of which Penn and Princeton are two of the most prestigious.   Penn is the Firehawks’ last debate conference of the year and the only one second semester, so skipping it will mean no debate competition for the second semester.

Shalhevet has previously won the Best Delegation award at Penn and usually takes around 25 students on the trip.  Last year’s team won 15 awards for individual performance at the conference.  Because of its success there, the team was invited to beta-test a new Model Senate program planned by the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the U.S. Senate in Boston, now delayed until next fall.  In previous years, Shalhevet also competed in Yeshiva University’s Model UN tournament, but decided not to this year.

Rabbi Segal said the team could appeal his decision but that the chance of success was extremely slim. Reb Noam seemed to caution them not to try.

“Do not fight or ‘lawyer’ this verdict,“ said Reb Noam at the meeting.

Students and alumni said that the wrestling matches — which they called “fight club”  — have occurred on school Shabbatons for many years and on debate trips since 2009.  Rabbi Segal punished several individual students who participated in fight club on the schoolwide Shabbaton last March.  But this year’s schoolwide Shabbbaton has not been cancelled and is scheduled for Jan. 10 – 11.

Debate coach Christopher Buckley explained the difference.

“On last year’s school wide Shabbaton, a minority of students participated in fight club, and those students were punished accordingly,” said Mr. Buckley in an interview. “The difference with this is that it was basically the entire team.”

Mr. Buckley is not sure if the team will continue to practice.

“I’m really not sure what to do at this point,” said Mr. Buckley. “The only thing I can think of is that we might be able to go to something local, because it’s not a cross country trip.”

Though disappointed, sophomore Noah Rothman said he respected the administration’s decision.

“I’m definitely upset about what happened, but I completely understand the administrators’ reasoning for canceling the trip,” said Noah.  “I feel like they’re taking away something that makes Shalhevet great, and I wish there could be an alternative punishment, but I understand them.”

But his classmate Daniel Soroudi was baffled by the penalty.

“We’ve done this in past years and there was never any punishment for anything,” said Daniel.  “Then all of a sudden, they didn’t even give us a warning or a consequence, and they just take the trip away from us completely.  I don’t think that their response was appropriate.”

Team members said they had been told not to have “fight club,” but that the instruction was one of many given at once prior to the trip and that no particular consequence had been threatened.

Related: Penn Model Congress back on due to administration change of heart 

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