Team Corruption - Advice Urgently Needed

Hey Chief Delphi,

I would have preferred to avoid making this post altogether, and honestly I’m quite terrified to, but we’re pretty desperate - we need advice from the FIRST community on handling my current situation. This does get quite lengthy as I have much to say, and I really would appreciate if it was read entirely though, but for anyone who would rather I skip straight to the point:

**tldr; A number of problems exist on our team as the result of the control that one “inner circle” of people holds over the team. People in this inner circle get special treatment and act disrespectful towards other students, knowing that there will be no repercussion because of their parents’ heavy involvement as authority figures. Students who speak out against the clear favoritism only get accused of starting trouble. Nepotism always plays a role in deciding who gets leadership roles on the team; kids who aren’t “favorites” or friends of the favorites are overlooked regardless of skill or competency. Everyone is sick of it but feels helpless to do anything about it. Help.

You may have noticed I’m not affiliated with a specific team or state; I’m only doing so as to preserve my anonymity as much as possible to prevent backlash from my team. Any situations I describe will be vague enough to not determine my team affiliation, but specific enough to voice my (and many team members) concerns. I can say I’m a veteran engineer on my team who’s been actively involved each build season. This post was physically written by only one person, but is a collaboration of over a dozen team members voicing their concerns. This is going to be a long post, and perhaps this isn’t the place for it - let me know.

FIRST is an amazing community. As a freshman, I truly saw it as a foundation dedicated to giving everyone an equal jump-start in the engineering field. As someone in a lower-class, single parent family, this concept was literally life saving. It was amazing. It didn’t matter where I was from- I was treated based on the content of my character and had just as much confidence placed in me as those from trade schools that lived much more comfortably. My social skills skyrocketed, my love for strategy grew, and I strived in kinesthetic learning.

On the largest scale, this fantastic atmosphere has remained strong in the FIRST community. In recent years, unfortunately, I have noticed a shift in attitude on my team since specific members have joined - one that affects (almost) everyone negatively.

In recent years, wealthier families have become more influential in many decisions that should be mentor and student driven, and I feel this has unbalanced the equality of this team. It has nothing to do with race or gender, but rather financial stability and “social status”.** To put it simply, my team is quite painfully structured by nepotism.** Children of influential parents or related to mentors - regardless of skill - do not have to meet any travel qualifications, including fundraising $ and grade requirements, while other students must maintain strict grade averages and fundraising in order to compete. Unfortunately, this is very hush-hush and most rookies are unaware of this. Everyday treatment is also drastically different towards these “elite” students and their friends as opposed to the average team member - 95% of which I’m very proud to say are brilliant, hard-working people.

I’ve spoken to many of my team members - more than 30, actually - who agree with my standpoint and can cite many examples of skewed judgement by team mentors due to the phantom elevated status of ones often accused of wrongdoings. Unfortunately, they’re all absolutely terrified of being picked out and practically bullied to quit if they speak out, no matter what proof they have. If students directly approach a lead mentor with a concern involving unfair treatment, they can be sure it will not be held in confidence and while mentors will treat them differently - negatively - life on the team continues as it did because “there’s no war in Ba Sing Sae” and the problems are not made known to the majority of the team. Small groups of students have banded together and spoken out about:

	-mentor involvement (mentors ignoring student’s ideas, telling them they’re wrong without explanation, and being quite negative and controlling over students)
	- these “elite” student team members being openly disrespectful towards multiple team subgroups because they personally dislike some members, regardless of their competence

The response to both problems was the promise of a reprimand - to no avail. In fact, the behavior became worse and more detrimental towards students. This has resulted in many members internalizing their problems and becoming afraid and distrusting of mentors, which honestly damages their mental health over time.

“On a FIRST team, a mentor’s goal should be to actively share his/her knowledge and experiences with the team to help foster intellectual growth. Provide students with opportunities to make choices, both good and bad.” (FIRST Mentoring Guide) On our team, students are rarely allowed to voice opinions or make independent choices, and are essentially taught that unless they are seen as “special” their opinion won’t matter.

Because I don’t want to write you a novel, here’s a list compiled by multiple team members of problematic events that occur often/have occured on my team and have been complained about with no repercussions to the offenders:

	- “favorite” students blatantly bullying and belittling other members publicly on social media about their private, personal problems
	- to earn a spot on the drive team or in other competition leadership positions, prospective students must go through an interview process. Unfortunately, some of the interviewers are directly related to students who interview for these positions, and these students are automatically selected regardless of skill (obvious conflict of interest)
	-a student (not me) emailed our lead mentor specifically about their concern with mentor over-involvement. They stated multiple times that they were in no way attempting be disrespectful, and were truly concerned. The mentor read the email and promptly ignored it.
	- allowance of “favorite” male + female team members to display extreme PDA and go MIA together at events, while reprimanding a homosexual couple on the team for even speaking to each other too often - even if conversation was clearly strategic or game-related.
	- choosing a friend of favored team members over a seasoned, experienced veteran for drive team, though the unfavored was clearly superior in skill and ability.
	- mentor refusing to address another mentor’s inappropriate conduct (negative attitude towards students) due to direct relation
	- influential parents being allowed to openly gossip about team members
	- a team member being told by a favored student that they were not allowed to travel due to being a “liability to the team” simply because they were diagnosed with depression.
	- mentors disregarding student complaints about team leaders because of their personal relations to the leader, and instead accusing the concerned student(s) of only trying to start trouble.
	- mentors physically working on the robot with favored students after meetings and making decisions without consulting the rest of the team. 
	- mentors purposely delaying student requests to order certain robot components because they personally disagree with design ideas
	-students are repeatedly told to respect mentors when vice versa is rarely applicable.
	- genuine, respectful feedback from involved veteran members is taken as disrespectful by mentors with no logical explanation other than disagreement.
	-  if a student is bold enough to speak out in front of the entire team (often berated as “attention-seeking”) the problem is fixed only temporarily and mentor behavior becomes significantly more negative and passive-aggressive towards that student.

	- absolutely none of the above applies to favored students. Their opinions are always respected, regardless of their behavior towards others. Any negative accusations made by favored students about other team members, regarding behavior for example, are presumed true and immediately acted upon regardless of the fact that there’s often no evidence of these supposed wrongdoings. They are literally guilty until proven innocent based solely on the word of these favorite students. 

**Note: not to say that unfavored students are perfectly behaved; there are some genuine instances of students misbehaving. Rather, the point being made is that if an average student so much as says “no” to certain mentors or favored students on a bad day, there’s hell to pay.
Finally, here is my question: For the love of God, what are we supposed to do?! I care about many of my team members deeply, and have dedicated much of my time to FRC. I am tired of participating on a team where the huge majority of veteran members speak often of quitting due to their frustration in being belittled. I’m unwilling to let such members erode the amazing concept that FIRST is and ruin it for many of my friends, most of which know that a team is not supposed to be led this way, and FIRST is about equal opportunity and growth. I also don’t want to be part of a team that causes severe stress and anxiety simply because of who I, or any of my team members are as individuals. I have a desperate hope that this is truly not what FIRST is about, and that 30+ of my team members and I are not overreacting as we are often told.

**Please, if you have any advice or suggestions about what steps we could take to amend this ugly situation, we would love to hear it. Thank you so much for taking the time to read this, and any replies (public or private) are hugely appreciated.

Do you have written, audio, or video evidence of said nepotism? I know you said that the “favored” students engage in bullying on social media (which you should record as screenshots, of course), but having evidence against adult mentors would be better in every situation, because they are supposed to be accountable for their own actions.

Currently we have no audio/video evidence, but many screenshots on multiple students’ devices of only a few isolated incidents of many. It’s such a frequent occurence that we should probably be prepared to document it at this point, but honestly most students are cowed by their fear. Ex. On one case when an argument was presented with solid evidence, mentors have completely turned a blind eye with no regret because of the power certain parents (and inherently their children) had.

Thank you for responding!

If you are on a school sponsored team, approach the principal and administrators about the events. That should hopefully resolve the conflict.

If you are not on a school sponsored team, my only advice is that you should gather everyone that supports your stance and approach the lead mentor as a group. They are the one that is responsible for the entire team’s actions. If this does not work, the only thing that could stop this from reoccurring would be to contact FIRST. It is supposed to be fun and lead people to wanting to get involved in STEM fields, not push them away because some people have to ruin it.

Honestly, the adults on your team are the most shameful because they are supposed to be the ones that guide you in situations relating, not only to robotics related events, but also tough life situations. I can only hope that not every adult is so immature to let people get away with bullying. I wish you the best of luck to getting your unfortunate predicament resolved.

I have considered this, and have many a draft waiting to be sent, but to be honest I have no idea who I would contact or what could actually be done. The fear of the unknown is what’s stopping me or anyone else from jumping off that ledge. We don’t want to destroy the team we have; we just want help. Things weren’t always like this, and we’re just desperately trying to revert back to how things were before this tirade began. Thank you so much for replying.

There are states where recording people without two party consent is committing a felony. I would not recommend doing that at all.

Anything posted on a social media website not made explicitly private is public information.

"Currently we have no audio/video evidence … " – I was focusing on currently. As in not yet but maybe we could obtain.

This was more to specify we had not done so. We are aware this is probably not legal, and definitely don’t want to tread there. We only have screenshots of social media. Thanks!

As long as it is not in California, Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, or Washington, you are able to do so with at least one (you or the recorders) permission. These twelve need both parties consent, and i would not recommend in those twelve, and i would be reluctant to do so even if i wasn’t in those states, but if this is true (and i am not doubting this at all, please do not take it like that) then recording if you can may be a good idea.

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Unfortunately, these types of complaints are common in organizations. Usually, it is a result of poor choices/communication rather than outright corruption. Also the truth is usually somewhere in the between both parties; once all the information is presented to all parties, the miscommunication is readily apparent.

When Parents are also mentors, they must make extraordinary effort to avoid even the perception of nepotism or favoritism. Because, perception is reality to everyone that thinks it.

If the situation is as bad as you say, there must be someone that you can take this too. As others have stated, your team probably has a sponsoring organization, (School, Community Club, etc); put your complaints and evidence together and present them to the administrators.

Write FIRST and give them details of some serious allegations, and just mention the rest. If possible, have a Mentor co-sign the letter.

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I don’t know if, and what, they can do. But, at least it is on record.

If you have 30 kids that feel that way, you have enough students to start another team. If you can find a few mentors to go with you …

Life isn’t fair. But at FIRST, Gracious Professionalism and Coopertition is intended for the students to learn to enthusiastically be fair. Sometimes though, you just have to learn how to make the best of a bad situation. Kind of like being half way through build season and realizing you don’t have a great design.

Play the cards you are dealt, have fun doing it, and learn along the way. That is Gracious Professionalism.

Without any evidence, its difficult to get anyone to act. The only method I feel would do you any good would be to get that 30 some students to request that the principal to come for a meeting and have an open forum at that specific meeting with everyone attending and all eyes and minds open. It might shine some light upon the situations, present your emails and then the real actions taken by those mentors and any other pieces so as to prove your point and allow for a fair accuasation and trial so to speak. What you do not want to do, is to create a divide between the team and cause the whole thing to poop bricks…

I know that you feel in a box and nothing will work but no matter what, it will end in at least a year. Move away and join a better team in the future.

[quote=rich2202;1444 206]Write FIRST and give them details of some serious allegations, and just mention the rest.

If you have 30 kids that feel that way, you have enough students to start another team. If you can find a few mentors to go with you …

Thanks for the address and suggestions. Unfortunately, we only have two full-time mentors and both are against reform. We also love our team very much and don’t want to just walk away from what we’ve worked towards.

(in reply to Fusion_Clint): After direction discussion with those involved, we can say in confidence that there is no misconception about the favoritism, as much as we wish it was.

I can’t help as far as advice beyond the current suggestions, but I’m here to vent to whenever. I really hope this gets fixed up soon.

Just be aware that whatever you decide to do right now, it likely won’t get the attention it deserves with everyone focused on getting the robot done and getting ready for the competitions. Plus, the final few days of build season are stressful and, with that stress, people would react differently than they normally do.

Thanks Shrub! That really means a lot and is appreciated :slight_smile:

This is very true, and yet another reason why I (the writer) am beating myself up for waiting so long to take action! It really does feel like we’re in a box.

We make it very clear at the beginning of every season that parents who come to help and mentor are here to help the team and not just to help their own kids. They also have no input into the process of selecting student for leadership roles or any type of roles. They also must steer clear of any disciplining process involving their own kids.

We make it very clear on the team that we don’t want this type of problem - let alone the perception of favoritism… Not only does it not do the team any justice - it destroys any type of leadership support the student leaders have when it is perceived that they are somehow favorites - or were not selected to lead completely due to merit.

First, I would suggest that you sit down and categorize all your concerns:

  1. Concerns that are clear violations of school rules or the law. (i.e. bullying, harassment)
  2. Concerns that are clear favoritism.
  3. Concerns that are simply poor management.
  4. Concerns that you might be misreading - easy to do if you are already upset about other issues.

Disregard Category 4 completely. The last thing you want is to be seen as “overly-emotional” or “looking for trouble.”

#3: These you can’t do much about either - One of three things is true: There could be a simple lack of man-power among your mentors to do things well; There could be incompetence at the top; You, as a student, are misreading the situation.

#2: This is tough. Favoritism is very hard to prove and determining who is “best” for a job is often very subjective. The best way to avoid this is to have a decision-maker who is not emotionally attached to a decision as to which student should get which job. The minute parents are involved in decisions about their own child, difficulties arise: Even if the particular child is the best for the job, there are always going to be questions. Many folks believe that if a parent is very involved in a club, that their child should get the “nod” if everything else is equal. Making accusations of favoritism often comes across as “sour grapes.” One way to approach this would be to have the “unchosen” student/s go to the “decision-maker” with a question like this: “I know that I didn’t make the cut this year, but I want another shot next year. Where to I need to improve my game in order to have a better chance?” This can not only lead to a good, friendly conversation, but will quietly “force” the decision-maker to reflect on the situation. The key is to not be accusatory - rather show maturity, a little bit of disappointment and the desire to do better.

#1 If the person running the club is a teacher, this needs to be reported to the teacher. If not, it needs to go to the school administration. Such behaviors have no place in any school organization and must be stopped at a level above the FRC team. If an adult is the problem, that adult may need to be removed from the team.

Overall, you need to tread lightly, keep your integrity and maintain Gracious Professionalism at all times. Assume the best possible motives for each person involved… If you do this, then, at the end of the season, once the stress of the build and competition season have ended, talk to the mentor/teacher who runs the team about your personal concerns - bring the other 30 concerned students, too.

I wish I could say that what you describe is uncommon in youth organizations, but it is not. Parents often want their kids to be “the star” and often don’t see other students’ needs. Money often means power… Etc. Keep your head up and your attitude positive. Good luck.

Instead of contacting FIRST HQ, reach out to your Sr. Mentor. If you do not have one, then your Regional Director.