Some students in the St. Olaf Choir and Orchestra are concerned about a January 2019 “Responsible Reporting” policy that obligates student officers to report “critical situations” to the conductor or manager. These situations include, but are not limited to, physical or mental health emergencies and sexual misconduct. Principle among concerns is that officers are not trained to handle situations where they have to make judgement calls regarding their peers’ health and safety.
While the policy’s stated purpose is to protect students, several ensemble members criticized how student well-being was handled on the Choir’s winter tour – the first time the policy was put to the test.
The most recent version of the policy was issued via email Jan. 29 by Jean Parish, the director of college relations for music organizations. The document stipulates that student officers must inform the conductor and manager of the ensemble if they are aware of a situation that could place a student or the ensemble at risk. The policy was initially rolled out for only the St. Olaf Choir and Orchestra, but will eventually be implemented for all ensembles.
“I think it’s very critical that everybody understand the impetus for this is around everybody’s safety and health and welfare,” Parish said in an interview with the Manitou Messenger.
In response to confusion about what types of situations should be reported, the final version of the policy gave several examples. One example, was a situation that “if left unaddressed could be dangerous, embarrassing, cause a loss to, or otherwise be damaging to the ensemble and/or the college.” The policy also clarified officers are required to report all potentially harmful situations, including “here-say.”
Orchestra and Choir Presidents Sophia Spiegel ’19 and Grace Jackson ’19 fear the policy will negatively affect the relationship between ensemble members and officers, jeopardizing officers’ ability to support their peers and friends in confidence.
“When [Parish] announced it to the entire Choir, people were really upset,” Jackson said. “Someone really clearly said, ‘the officers said we can come to them about anything, this doesn’t feel like we can do that anymore.'”
Parish, however, said the policy aims to solidify the role of the four officers – President, Vice President, Treasurer and Chaplain – within the different ensembles. Student officers have a “slightly higher” level of responsibility for the wellbeing and safety of their peers by nature of their position, Parish said.
When the policy was initially announced, it referenced “mandatory reporting,” a term usually used for paid employees who are legally required to report if they become aware of an individual who may cause harm to themselves or others. After students expressed confusion regarding if the policy would place legal responsibility on officers, the wording was changed to “responsible reporting.” Parish said the policy has no legal implications.
“We are a student elected body and hope to be a resource for them to come to,” Spiegel said. “That’s the hat we wear usually, and that’s the hat we should be wearing. It’s a student elected body, we’re not employees of the College.”
Tour, student fatigue
Despite the policy’s focus on student wellbeing, Jackson and several other Choir members expressed frustration with how student health and safety were handled during their winter tour. The ensemble began travel Jan. 30, the same day the policy officially went into effect.
During the two weeks the Choir toured the southeast United States, they performed 12 concerts. Jackson, Haley Gabler ’20 and Julia Woodring ’19 emphasized this year was especially draining, resulting in widespread physical, mental and emotional fatigue.
Woodring had a particularly difficult experience when large TV lights were set up on stage Feb. 8 for the ensemble’s performance in St. Petersburg, Fla.
“They were right at our eye level and so I went to talk to the administration and say that we might pass out, we were worried about that,” Woodring said. “I ended up passing out in the first set.”
Jackson and Gabler said Saturday, Feb. 9 was the worst day of the tour – the ensemble performed two concerts that day in Naples, Fla.
“[This day] disproportionately, as do all issues, affected people who have physical or mental health issues,” Gabler said. “I got out of the second concert and just cried, I was so frustrated.”
She said it felt as though ticket sales were prioritized over students’ wellbeing.
Two concerts were scheduled in Naples because there are so many College alumni there who want to see the Choir perform, Parish said. She also said because students go on domestic tours free-of-charge, a certain amount of ticket revenue has to be achieved each year.
Jackson and Gabler said mental health concerns were also an issue that Saturday.
“The day of the double concert there were at least two people who had anxiety attacks at intermission of the first concert,” Jackson said. “Mental health on tour for anyone – even if you’re not someone who struggles with mental health regularly – is really difficult.”
Jackson, like Woodring, decided to report her concerns to St. Olaf Choir Conductor Anton Armstrong. She said she asked if the second concert could be shortened, and that her concerns were dismissed. Out of respect for those who buy tickets to these performances, concerts cannot be shortened at the last minute, Parish said.
“I tried to talk to Dr. Armstrong and he wouldn’t even sit down with me,” Jackson said. “I was blown off and nothing was done about it to help those people.” Armstrong did not respond to the Manitou Messenger’s requests for comment.
Several members of varying ensembles said long hours and exhaustion are inevitable aspects of going on tour. Parish agreed.
“We take the rest and the pacing of these tours extremely seriously,” Parish said. “[Tours] are fun, but they are very hard work, and we are aware of that and grateful to the students every day for how they get up there and perform and rehearse.”
Jackson felt that in the context of the new policy, and the safety of her peers, her attempts to report were not taken as seriously as the responsible reporting policy suggests.
“If the policy is about the operations of the ensembles and the well-being and safety and health [of students] – which are all words included in the policy – I think these are things that are important,” Jackson said. “That was me trying to report.”