SA Executive Vice President Josh Singer said there are “a ton of problems inherent in the judicial system” at GW and asked the Joint Committee of Faculty and Students to begin a process of reforming the Student Code of Conduct at a Friday meeting.
“I want to see a fundamental change in the total procedures and the way that (Student Judicial Services) hear cases,” Singer said.
Singer said he wants to eliminate minimum sanctions for offenses and increase publicity of SJS policies so students can be “better informed and understand their rights.”
“Right now the sanctions don’t fit the charges,” Singer said.
SJS considers sanctions it imposes confidential and has declined repeated requests to release monthly reports of charges and the sanctions that resulted.
Interim SJS Director Sarah Janczuk was unavailable for comment on Singer’s criticism. Former SJS Director David Pine and Assistant Director Emily Walker resigned this year for personal reasons.
But SJS Hearing Board members said students should be confident in the system.
Freshman Hearing Board member Alex Berger said he does not feel students should worry about being charged of a violation that they did not commit.
“If someone is accused of something they didn’t do, then that student has the opportunity to assert that they are wrongly accused,” he said. “I think students have an understanding of the system that they can sufficiently or adequately defend themselves. They have opportunities to see the materials.”
Faculty members at the meeting agreed that reforming the code and looking at the way sanctions are handed down are important issues, but no final decisions were made at the meeting.
“There are a lot of players and a lot of stakeholders involved,” said professor David McAleavey, faculty chair of the committee. “It is a very complicated issue, but we can certainly begin looking.”
After the meeting, Singer said he is not confident that students are getting fair trials in the current system.
“I think there are a lot of good people there, but there are a lot of problems. I don’t think students are informed well enough in advance for students to prepare and, in my opinion, a lot of student rights are being violated,” said Singer, who advises charged students seeking consultation. “A lot of students who are innocent are found guilty because they don’t know the laws well enough.”
“One of my biggest problems – and this is something every student can be scared of, especially freshmen – is if you have a roommate that has marijuana and if your room is searched, you can be charged,” said Jade Nester, director of Student Judicial Advisors, an SA student judicial advocacy group.
Junior Joshua Hiscock, a hearing board member, said he believes the current system is fair but declined to comment on whether the judicial process needs reform.
Nester and Singer said they would like to see changes in the letter that SJS sends to students to notify them of a hearing.
“I would like more clarification on the violations that are in the letter and what the possible sanctions are for such a violation, so students don’t think they are going to get suspended for an alcohol violation,” Nester said. She also wants the letter to mention the Student Judicial Advisors program so students who want help will know their options.
Nester said she does not believe SJS always makes all materials about a case available to charged students, especially for anonymous tips given to SJS.
While Singer believes that the hearing board is a good idea because it allows students to be judged by a group of peers, he said the system does not give the hearing board enough flexibility in determining the sanctions.
Singer said sanctions for drug and alcohol violations concern him. He said that there are many situations in which students might be at a party and not drinking but still sanctioned if there is alcohol at the party. A first-offense sanction includes paying a $50 fine and attending classes on alcohol and drug abuse.
Students who are charged with violating the Student Code of Conduct by the University Police Department are sent to SJS, which then investigates the case. If SJS believes that students have violated the code, the office sends letters to the students to notify them of the rules they believe were violated and to schedule appointments to come before SJS for “trial.”
Students are then given the choice to go either before the University Hearing Board, a group of five students and one faculty member that act as a jury in deciding the facts, or to a conference with a professional member of the SJS staff who acts as an arbiter. Janczuk is the only remaining professional staff member.
GW’s Disciplinary Hearing Boards are comprised of five students and one GW official. In contrast, American University’s Conduct Council includes 12 students, while Georgetown and Emory Universities have hearing boards with a mix of administrators and students.
The major difference between GW’s Code of Student Conduct and the other school codes is the appeals process. According to the GW Code, a student may appeal the determinations of a hearing board only if there is “new information that is relevant to the case that was not previously presented at the hearing.”
Emory’s code specifically states that students may appeal if they feel there was an “excessive penalty” or “substantial departure from written procedures” by the hearing board.
Georgetown and American’s codes do not specify grounds for appeal.
Senior Assistant Dean of Students Michael Walker said in an e-mail that the appeals process “seems to work well for the GW community” and SJS staff “routinely review(s) sanction recommendations made by staff and the Boards to ensure they are proportional and educational for the student’s disciplinary history and offense.”
All of the universities consider judicial hearings confidential.
Singer called GW’s code of conduct the “harshest” he has reviewed and would like to see the University model a system after New York University and local schools.
“These colleges are more specific in the way they are written, and they put more power in the person who is hearing the case,” Singer said. He hopes by eliminating minimum sanctions and giving more power to those who hear the cases, students will receive fairer punishment for their violations.
“A lot of students and administrators are ready for change, and that is what I intend to do, whether they like it or not,” Singer said.