Op-ed: Ethics violations should be grounds for student organizations to remove members

Karina Ochoa Berkley, a sophomore majoring in political science and philosophy, is the Student Association’s vice president for sustainability and an opinions writer.

Late last month, the Student Association Senate officially introduced impeachment charges against then-President Howard Brookins following several cabinet resignations and a public statement posted on Twitter describing how Brookins purportedly sexually harassed a student. The statement prompted several student organizations, senators and SA cabinet members – including myself – to call for Brookins to resign. Since the impeachment charges have been filed, Brookins has resigned in a, frankly deplorable, letter where he not only denies the basis of the “allegations” but calls the experience of the survivor who came forward against him “speculative.”

However, none of the impeachment charges against him are related to this conduct – they are solely tied to technical violations of the bylaws, like failing to make appointments to certain positions. That’s because, according to the Code of Student Conduct, student organizations are not allowed to take “adjudicatory or sanctioning action” for breaching GW policies without the approval of the Student Rights and Responsibilities director. As currently written and interpreted, the Code of Student Conduct fosters an environment that allows potentially dangerous members of the community to assume leadership in the GW community, and it is unacceptable.

This rule is likely intended to encourage students to use University departments, like SRR and the Title IX Office, to report violations of the Code of Student Conduct. But the policy limits the power of student organizations to remove student leaders who present a threat to the safety and well-being of other students. Had Brookins managed to avoid four bylaws violations, there would have been no mechanism to remove him for purported sexual harassment. We could have only hoped for his eventual resignation. To remedy this, the SA Senate and other student organizations should amend their bylaws to 1) adopt organization-specific ethics codes that describe what constitutes “misconduct” and 2) outline how to remove and/or ban individuals for said misconduct.

One of the most powerful tools student organizations can have to support survivors of sexual misconduct is the ability to deplatform assailants. GW has a significant history of men in student leadership positions getting away scot-free for sexually harassing and assaulting, predominantly women survivors. For example, just last summer, nearly a dozen people came forward against Ethan Somers, a well-known figure in certain anti-gun advocacy circles, describing experiences of rape and sexual assault. While Somers never publicly faced charges, the platforms that gave Somers his notoriety, namely Guns Down America, Gifford’s, Express Inc. and Culture Media-Co all terminated their contracts and affiliations with him – solidifying his “social death.” But more importantly, it ensured survivors of sexual misconduct would no longer have to see their assailant undeservingly glorified in their community. This is exactly the kind of measure all student organizations should be allowed to take to expel community threats.

This liberty is especially important when existing University institutions fail to provide adequate support for and ensure survivors’ safety. For instance, in 2017, a survivor of sexual assault had to resort to petitioning the University to expel her assailant after GW had only issued a deferred suspension, meaning he was banned from residence halls for two months and required to attend two meetings with a administrator. Clearly here, the University’s priorities were to ensure the comfort of the assailant, as opposed to the safety of the survivor and other women at the University. At the very least, officials should allow student organizations to remove students who pose threats to other students, particularly to women.

My fellow students should join this effort to ensure we are allowed to remove predators for being predators and to not simply hope that future leaders just so happen to also be incompetent in their professional lives. Student groups must institute substantive changes that allow for members to be removed for misconduct, because there will be more abusers that come through who are not bad at their job like our previous president.

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