COVID-19 student conduct policies face scrutiny

Amidst frequently changing campus regulations for gatherings, masking and student behavior in regards to COVID-19, the student disciplinary system, formally known as student conduct, has managed alleged student violations and issued sanctions. In light of the stricter campus rules due to COVID-19, Safety and Security and Student Conduct practices have come under scrutiny.

Bleu Chambers ’22 found himself in front of a student conduct panel after Safety and Security referred him to administration after an incident on Founder’s Day during Spring 2021. According to Chambers, he played one song on a speaker outside of his townhouse (TH) when a Safety and Security officer arrived and told him to bring the music back inside. Later, he was surprised to find out he had to attend a student conduct panel, considering the size of his gathering was smaller than many of the large gatherings that happen on Founder’s Day, and he was not “disturbing the peace.” 

Director of Student Conduct Rich Horowitz explained that understanding situations in the THs can prove challenging.  noted, “We understand that a gathering in a public TH space isn’t easily, if at all, related to any effort to form such a gathering by [a] nearby TH.” However, he shared that Conduct uses a few criteria to determine if a specific TH may be responsible for a gathering of students outside: if a TH is providing music of any kind, if there are multiple people in the TH or if there is a large volume of traffic going in and out of the TH. 

Chambers left the process feeling that student conduct had blown the situation severely out of proportion. “The student disciplinary body wasn’t at the scene, and so it really makes it a security guard’s word versus the student’s. The way that report is filled out can be very situational and relies on the particular night,” he explained. While Chambers was unsure whether COVID-19 had caused a shift in the way Safety and Security treated students, he felt that the pandemic had pitted students against the administration and that Safety and Security officers were stuck in the middle of this adversarial dynamic. 

Student conduct addresses all of the reports filed by Safety and Security, but according to Horowitz, student conduct addresses 35 percent of these informally, usually with an email warning. “For instance,” Horowitz explained, “a first noise related incident will normally result in an email to share with the student that the noise complaint was called in because the level of noise disrupted someone—we share that a second such complaint would be formally processed: clear communication.” The Student Conduct office may also informally address such situations through mediation, restorative conference, a behavioral contract or  a conversation. 

For those cases that are processed formally through student conduct, and therefore those cases for which there are Conduct meetings, a “more likely than not” standard is used to determine a student’s responsibility in an incident. Horowitz clarified that in most situations students will accept what Safety and Security has alleged, so there’s no need to put this standard into place. 

In scenarios in which students accept responsibility, or are considered “more likely [to be responsible] than not,” to be responsible, there is a sanctioning table that provides guidance for how Conduct should handle different situations. However, all cases are considered in context, rather than action just being taken on the basis of what specific rule was broken. Horowitz shared that the system seeks to consider the varying degrees of impact of a violation when determining the outcome of a student conduct meeting. Additionally, Horowitz added that, “Most importantly, however, outcomes to student conduct meetings are not punishments. The student conduct system simply seeks to hold students accountable for not meeting Vassar’s behavioral expectations.” 

Horowitz shared that at this point in the school year, there have been 28 cases reported to student conduct, compared to 26 cases at this point two years ago (prior to COVID-19 regulations) and 80 cases last year (when COVID regulations were more stringent). Horowitz stated, “I would have to look more closely at last year’s cases to say with certainty, but I think it’s accurate to say that last year there was an overall increase in the number of cases related to COVID expectations.”

While Horowitz stated that the outcomes of conduct meetings are not intended to be punishments, they often feel that way to students. One student, who wished to remain anonymous, disagreed with Horowitz. This particular student received a half-point housing deduction which lowers her chances of obtaining her residence of choice during the housing draw. “The outcomes of student conduct meetings are absolutely punishments,” she stated. “You can’t give someone a concrete consequence of taking away a housing point and not call it a punishment. The housing system at Vassar is already extremely complex and difficult to navigate and a poor housing assignment can really impact your quality of life at Vassar, and even your social life, especially because everyone lives on campus.”” 

Horowitz clarified that the outcomes of student conduct meetings are not meant to be punitive, and there is typically a degree of predictability to the outcomes. He said, “Violations that are formally processed are normally warnings…Additionally, we expunge student conduct outcomes that resulted in a warning after each academic year and those that resulted in anything less than suspension upon graduation.” 

Given that all incidents brought forth by Safety and Security are referred to student conduct, students are concerned with the officers’ enforcement strategies. An officer’s discretion impacts who faces controversial consequences. Moving forward, another student who also asked to remain anonymous felt that establishing a more standardized approach to enforcement across the Safety and Security staff might be an important step to improving trust. “One thing I’ve noticed during my time at Vassar is that [an outcome] really depends on which officer walks up to you. It would be nice to know what to expect in these situations,” the anonymous student said. 

The student also expressed a desire for both officers and members of the administration to be more transparent regarding their intentions for student conduct enforcement. “I’ve definitely noticed an increased presence around the THs. I’ll see security cars, especially on weekend nights, just slowly driving around the circle, and not even getting out or doing anything. Often, they just sit there parked with their lights on, and it’s strange.” She continued,  “It seems like an intimidation tactic, and I feel like with what little straightforward guidelines we as students have been given, that’s been pretty unfair.”

As the Vassar community moves forward through the pandemic and this school year, time will tell how the administration continues to deal with heightened tensions between students and the conduct process, as well as how Safety and Security officers navigate their mediating roles.


One Comment

  1. Student conduct oversight and the disciplinary process has become totally ridiculous. There should be no punishment for other than the most egregious abuses. Noise complaints going to a discipline committee? Please. Students deserve the right to feel secure on their campuses and not as if they have someone hovering over them to punish them over nothing. COVID did not destroy this right and it is time for the conduct police to back way off. And just for the record, I graduated in 1975 and no one would have ever tried to act this way with our class, when it was the students and not the administration that set the moral compass.

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