SJS seeks to reform disciplinary process

After years of complaints over procedure and transparency, the head of Student Judicial Services plans to reform the board that doles out punishments to students who have violated GW’s Student Code of Conduct.

Tara Pereira, the assistant dean of students and head of SJS, said she will be holding town hall meetings throughout the year to seek input from students on how they want the disciplinary process to improve.

“SJS has an image problem. I recognize that,” Pereira said in an interview with The Hatchet. “I also know that we have a hard job. We need to find a balance between correcting, or addressing, the image problem, with maintaining the integrity of the system.”

The reformation process will likely take a year to flesh out, and the ultimate decision on how to change SJS procedure will likely be implemented in the fall of 2011.

Pereira said she has already begun to seek input, meeting with her staff, administrators from across the University, as well as Student Association President Jason Lifton and Executive Vice President Rob Maxim to come up with ways to improve SJS’s procedures.

From the meetings she has had over the summer, Pereira said she has made three goals for the year: Make the judicial process less formidable for students, create new learning points she wants students to take away from SJS and attempt to create SJS resolutions that focus on education rather than on creating judicial records for students.

“Not everyone who goes through this system or who makes a bad decision needs a judicial sanction to learn,” Pereira said. “Not everyone needs a punishment. Most people, in fact, need a conversation.”

Overall, Pereira said students can be fearful of the SJS process, so the goal is to make the process less daunting.

Pereira stressed that procedures for serious offenses – like sexual assault – will not change. Rather, the focus for the changes is on lower and mid-level offenses like alcohol and drug violations, and keeping students who accept responsibility for their actions from having to endure a full SJS hearing.

In her 10 years at GW – eight years as head of discipline – Pereira said some students want everything in SJS to be handled on a case-by-case basis, and others want to know exactly what is going to happen to them in any SJS situation.

“Maintaining the integrity of the system while gathering student, faculty and staff feedback to address the image issue, that’s our daunting task, and we’re working on that,” she said.

Pereira said she doesn’t have a timeline for when meetings will start, but said this interview with The Hatchet is a large part of getting the ball rolling on the process, adding that she has already purchased Hatchet ads to address myths about SJS and CADE – Center for Alcohol and other Drug Education – policies.

“We’re trying to figure out the best way to solicit feedback,” Pereira said.

During this year of review, students going through SJS will still see some changes, Pereira said.

She said a common recipe of an SJS case – making up about 50 percent of SJS hearing boards last year – is one where a student with no judicial history is caught with a small amount of marijuana, a piece or two of drug paraphernalia or a small amount of alcohol, usually shared among roommates.

She said almost every student in those cases admits to possession and accepts responsibility.

For those cases, Pereira said, students who would have pleaded guilty at an SJS hearing will have the opportunity to accept an agreement of sanctions, which she said would not be harsher than the punishment the student would have received if the student went before an SJS hearing board.

“We are trying to decrease the number of students who have to go through the process at the hearing board level when they fully accept responsibility for their behavior,” Pereira said.

She said this was a major change, and could cut the number of SJS hearing boards by half or more.

“We have also looked at every single type of violation and we have looked at the scale on which we measure them,” she said, noting an example of students who have a party that isn’t out of control. “Do you need to have a judicial record to help you make a different decision next time? In some cases yes, in that case no, you probably need education.”

For students who need more help, Pereira said she thinks the judicial system has been progressive and helpful, but low and mid-level cases needed review.

Pereira also oversees CADE, and noted some changes to CADE’s Alcohol Medical Amnesty program this year, which works with students who are hospitalized for the overconsumption of alcohol. The program isn’t a judicial process in SJS.

Before, students finished hospital treatment and then spoke to a representative of the dean of students’ office, followed by alcohol education and assessment.

“Now [students] are going to go directly to the University Counseling Center and go through an education and assessment process, and then they’re going to come and meet with me or one of a few other administrators, because getting them the education faster is better for them. From my experience I just believe that that’s a better way,” Pereira said.

Other administrators coming into the amnesty conversations represent specific student groups.

Three identified so far are Tim Miller, the executive director of the Student Activities Center, who will work with Greek-letter life students; Rebecca Sawyer, senior assistant dean of GW Housing Programs; and Brian Hamluk, associate director of athletics for administration, who will talk with athletes.

“To utilize community members from across the University is a very wise initiative and helps broaden the number of stakeholders helping to educate students about responsible alcohol use,” Hamluk said.

Pereira said the University doesn’t want students to engage in underage drinking, but realizes some do anyway, so campaigns like BeWiser, which have been used in the past will continue to give students tips on how to drink wisely if they choose to consume alcohol.

Maxim said the BeWiser campaign is part of a change in attitude at GW, explaining that the thinking is, “students drink, so let’s do something practical about it.”

Pereira said the University’s message about alcohol – to work smart and play smart – will be brought to all parts of GW.

“We need to do something to help this culture make healthier decisions. The way that we are going to address underage drinking is in large part a focus on binge and high-risk drinking.”

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