The student code of conduct is getting its first comprehensive review in more than 20 years.
Officials said immediate changes to the code of conduct – made public Monday and set to be implemented Oct. 15 – include adding more avenues to appeal a case’s outcome and removing fines from sanctions. After the new code’s implementation, administrators will host listening sessions this fall to solicit feedback from students to consider future changes to the conduct guidelines.
Christy Anthony, the director of the Office of Student Rights and Responsibilities, said when she assumed her role in May, she realized that the code hadn’t undergone a review since 1996. She said the student code of conduct will be reviewed annually or every two years so that the guidelines become “routine and part of the campus culture.”
“What I anticipate doing – what we’re working to do in the coming year – is to do a broad community conversation about the code,” she said.
Anthony said the changes fall under “four buckets” – aligning with other University policies, removing guidelines the University no longer uses, clarifying existing practices and updating the code’s language.
Looking to other University policies and legal guidance
Anthony said adding two avenues to appeal the outcome of a case – and clarifying the third – mirrors changes the University made to its Title IX policy over the summer, including a switch to a single-investigator model instead of a hearing board. Anthony said students will now be able to appeal their sanction on the basis of procedural errors and the severity of a sanction, not just new evidence.
“Procedural errors, in my experience in this work, are rare, but they can happen, and students should absolutely have an opportunity to make a case that a procedural error occurred and that it significantly impacted the case, and so it should be reconsidered,” she said.
She added that she has seen “a lot of student interest” in how SRR issues punishments and wanted to give students an avenue to appeal a case if they felt the severity of a sanction wasn’t appropriate.
An alumna and sexual assault survivor protested the outcome of her sexual violence case in spring 2017 after her alleged assailant was handed a lesser punishment than what was recommended by the student code of conduct. The new code of conduct does not include recommended sanctions.
A male student also sued the University in March alleging that officials wrongfully found that he had committed an act of sexual assault. He argued in a reply brief in June that officials misread evidence that the University procured to dismiss the case and should have allowed him a second trial.
Anthony declined to say if the changes made to the appeal process were in response to either of these cases.
Brian Burton, the director of student conduct and community standards at the University of Utah, said updating student conduct guidelines to include more than one way to appeal an outcome is beneficial for students who feel their sanction is not reflective of their character.
“I think in general more appeals allows more due process and, across many institutions, due process rights are guaranteed for students,” Burton said.
Anthony said the updates will also change the way discriminatory harassment and unlawful harassment are classified, making them stand-alone charges instead of tacking on a punishment to a case that involved discrimination.
She said the changes were not related to a racist Snapchat incident last semester, which ignited student outrage on campus last February, leading administrators to institute a slew of new diversity measures.
Student Association President Ashley Le said updates to discrimination and harassment in the student code of conduct are “critical” to address both the Snapchat incident and other incidents of racial discrimination on campus.
“While it may not be enough to completely solve the issue of discrimination on our campus, it is a much-needed affirmation that discriminatory behaviors are not permissible at GW,” Le said.
Removing old practices
Anthony said the updates to the code will include lifting a ban on providing character witnesses if statements from the witnesses are relevant to the fact-finding process of the case.
She said fines will also no longer be tied to certain sanctions after several students raised concerns that students of lower socioeconomic statuses may not be able to afford the charges. She added that there isn’t research that indicates fines are “educational” for students or help them evaluate their decision-making or promote behavioral changes.
“A $25 fine can feel very differently to someone, depending on their individual and family wealth, and those are not circumstances that should be part of our sanctioning system,” she said.
Cissy Petty, the first dean of the student experience, said it’s more important for the student code of conduct to reflect “restorative justice” and help restore a student’s place in the GW community instead of soliciting money.
“We’re looking at mission versus margin,” Petty said. “When I first got here, I heard a lot about the University is transactional and not relational. This is clearly a relational issue, when it’s about conduct, and we’re not looking for money, we’re looking for mission.”
Reflecting current practices
Anthony said the code will also be updated to reflect existing practices, like clarifying that faculty members can prohibit unauthorized video and audio recordings during their classes.
She said the code will also be updated to include the rationale behind a sanction for a case’s outcome, like the nature of the violation and the incident itself or the impact of the conduct to the individuals.
“I think all the information was there, I think what we want to do is help students understand what they should expect and how they should use the info that’s provided to help them better understand the outcome,” she said.
Anthony said some of the changes will focus on language and editing for clarity, consistency and organization. She said the language in the new code includes less legal jargon to make it easier for students to comprehend.
Anthony said binary pronouns used in the code of conduct will also be replaced with they, them and theirs.
Bella Gianani, a student justice for SRR, said she is “excited” about the new pronouns because the code of conduct will be more inclusive of the student body.
“Overall, the changes made to the code better reflect our best practices as well as the values of the GW community,” Gianani said in an email.
Matt Clifford, the associate dean of student conduct at Wake Forest University, said updating the language of student conduct guidelines is a common practice for universities because it ensures terminology and policies used by the school won’t be outdated or exclusive of certain genders.
“What does it signal to students if we only refer to male pronouns or to pronouns that are binary in nature?” he said. “It may signal to students who don’t ascribe to that particular set of pronouns on the gender spectrum that that doesn’t apply to you.”
Ilena Peng, Nikitha Balaji, Lia Degroot, Shannon Mallard, Olivia Dupree, Hana Hancock and Parth Kotak contributed reporting.