Michael Harrison

As a dean of students, one thing I never have enough of is time. I’ve found that good interrogation techniques, when used effectively, save time. Lots of it.

I learned this the hard way. In the first few big discipline cases that I handled, I would ask a student for information, take him at his word, and allow him to leave. I would then spend a full day, sometimes several days, chasing down bad leads, interviewing dozens of kids, only to find, when the truth finally came out, the same student back in my office–this time with a different story. I now recognize that my task is to get the truth the first time.

For example, today Suzanne’s watch was missing from her PE locker. Only three other girls have PE at the same time as Suzanne, so there weren’t many people I would need to talk to. In this case, I was able to call in one of the girls who immediately admitted taking the watch, “I was just borrowing it,” she explained.

Not all sessions are this easy. When drugs, alcohol, vandalism, or other serious violations are involved, students are typically less forthcoming. In these cases, I often begin like this: “I already know everything there is to know about this incident. I’m just giving you a chance to be honest.” Usually, I can instinctively tell if they’re bullshitting me. If they are, I’ll interrupt them: “Stop right there! Now start over, and this time tell the truth.”

Sometimes, when I’m pretty sure I’m being handed a line, I’ll bluff right back. “Really? Is that really what you want to tell me? I just had three other students in here and they told me something totally different. Are you sure you don’t want to be honest?”

A few times, when faced with a stonewalling student, I’ve picked up my phone and said, “You can start telling me the truth or you can call your mom and tell her you’ve been expelled–your choice.” I don’t use that strategy lightly–only for drug dealers and the like.

Fortunately, today no drug dealers; just a “borrowed” watch problem. And, happily, when walking across campus this morning, I spotted one of our seniors, Tina McMillan, standing in a courtyard with her hands at her sides, eyes closed, head tilting slightly upward toward the rising sun. Tina heard me coming and opened her eyes. “Good morning, Mr. Harrison.”

“Good morning, Tina,” I said. “How’s your day going?”

Tina was looking at the sky and said, “Odd. Good–but odd. First off, whoever is in charge of salaries around here should give Mrs. Watkins a raise. I’m taking her senior Buddhism seminar. We’ve been learning about meditation. We’re supposed to find a spot around campus or in the chapel and meditate–not do homework, not to worry about classes or our jobs or our families–but just to be.” She paused and continued to look at the sky. “It’s one of the best things I’ve done in a while.”

As Tina and I spoke, I watched dozens of seniors walk by carrying meditation pillows and looking relaxed for the first time all year. Tina asked me, “So, what’s on your agenda today? Not in terms of paperwork–what do you really want to do today? Are you going to be able to just be?”

Good question.