The George Washington University is undertaking a comprehensive review this fall of the Code of Student Conduct, an effort that will be led by the Office of Student Rights and Responsibilities (SRR).
SRR will schedule listening sessions for various GW constituencies, which will provide opportunities to educate students about the code and for SRR to receive feedback on ways to improve it. Christy Anthony, director of SRR, said that all viewpoints that do not violate any legal obligations the university must uphold will be considered.
Ms. Anthony said that SRR will coordinate with student leaders to determine the most effective way to open a dialogue with a broad representation of GW’s student groups to have input on changes to the code.
The schedule for the listening sessions is forthcoming. They will provide a basis for what Ms. Anthony envisions will be annual efforts to update the Code of Student of Conduct.
“I really intend a broad community conversation,” Ms. Anthony said. “That will mean a lot of different and potentially disparate voices at the table, so that means that no one perspective will carry the day.”
To prepare for the comprehensive review, the GW Board of Trustees approved changes to bring the code up to date with current policies and practices.
Cissy Petty, associate vice provost and dean of the student experience, said that the Code of Student Conduct exists “to identify essential rights and responsibilities of all students and student organizations and to serve as a guide for a healthy and safe student experience.”
“The code has not received a full review since 1996,” Dr. Petty said. “To that end, it was time to review both process and practice. The changes made in the code for this year are a part of phase one, and phase two will be more comprehensive in nature and will stem from broad community feedback.”
Ms. Anthony identified a number of concerns with the Code of Student Conduct and the Statement on Student Rights and Responsibilities when she joined the university in May. She said both were difficult to understand.
“The goal of these changes is to have a document that is easier for people to read and that in some basic, fundamental ways, better reflects our current practice and priorities,” she said.
Some of the more notable intermediate changes include a change in the way discriminatory harassment and unlawful discrimination are labeled, new criteria in the appeals process and the removal of fines as a foundation for sanctions. The code also aligns with the new unified Sexual and Gender-Based Harassment and Interpersonal Violence Policy that GW adopted on July 1. The new policy brings the code up to date with university practices, which call for violations of that policy to be adjudicated separately from the Code of Student Conduct.
Bella Gianani, a University Hearing Board justice who helps determine the finding of fact in cases and recommend appropriate sanctions, said that she is particularly excited about the code becoming more inclusive with the replacement of binary and male-gendered pronouns. She is also excited about the removal of minimum sanctions that included fines.
"The recent changes made to the Student Code of Conduct are incredibly welcome as a returning student justice,” Ms. Gianani said. “The modification of language in the code has made the document much easier to comprehend, thereby increasing accessibility for students.
“Overall, the changes made to the code better reflect our best practices as well as the values of the GW community."
One of the changes will allow for reporting parties in discriminatory harassment or unlawful discrimination cases to participate in the process if the SRR director, or a designee, deems it appropriate.
In addition, there will also be four changes to the process for appealing the outcome of a student conduct case.
Before the update, the code said that a student could appeal only when they had new evidence relevant to the case that had not been presented at the hearing and would significantly alter the finding of fact.
The update changes the definition of “new evidence” to mean evidence that was not reasonably available at the hearing.
Ms. Anthony said that the idea behind this language change is to create a process that incentivizes people to present all relevant information as soon as they have ability to do so.
“Our process is really geared toward understanding what happened, and we need information to do that,” Ms. Anthony said. “If we inadvertently incentivize people withholding information so that they can get a ‘second bite at the apple’ as it were, that's problematic to the foundations of our work.”
There are also two new grounds for appeal added to the code: procedural errors and sanctions disproportionate to the findings in the case.
The fourth change in the appeals process calls for the associate dean of students, or the designee, to review an appeal to determine whether it provides grounds as listed in the code. This is a language change from determining the appeal’s “viability” to a clearer definition of what constitutes whether an appeal will receive a full review before a panel of the Committee on the Judicial System.
In the currently-published code, students are assigned a fine for most violations, but that has some significant problems, Ms. Anthony said. The biggest issue with fine-based sanctioning is that there is no evidence that fines are educational, restorative, or help students think about their behavior, she said. Another issue with fines is the disparate impact they have on students depending on their individual or familial wealth.
“Sanctions should not disproportionately impact people on that basis,” Ms. Anthony said. “They should impact people on the basis of what occurred and what they can do to repair it.”
The updated code will not include recommended sanctions such as the fine structure, and SRR will switch to a structure that focuses on educational and restorative sanctions.
“The code highlights our commitment to building an inclusive and welcoming community where students respect one another and are responsible for their actions,” Provost Forrest Maltzman said. “A code that clearly articulates our standards and practices is an important pillar of a positive student experience.”