December 7, 2017

Wheaton’s Student Conduct Policy could be one of the most misunderstood topics within the student body. Oftentimes, students around campus refer to “breaking the covenant” as a deterrent for certain behaviors that do not align with the goals of Wheaton’s campus community, but the 65-page Student Handbook rarely receives the same attention. Interestingly, the Community Covenant — agreed to by all Wheaton Students each semester in order to register for classes — does not function as the primary document to determine the repercussions for breaking school policy, nor does it specifically outline the policies which students could receive punishment for rebelling against. Complex processes and procedures designed for restorative justice, student safety and maximum student privacy work to promote a prosperous campus community. The Record sought out a number of RA’s and Res Life personnel in an effort to add clarity to one of the most pertinent topics on campus — the Student Conduct Policy — in real terms.

How does Res Life know about an incident?

The Res Life staff primarily relies on students to report incidents, whether that might be a self-report or a report on an incident involving peers. “When there’s an incident, we as Res Life staff strongly encourage residents to tell an RA or else tell a friend who’s comfortable telling the RA,” current Fischer RA Hannah Lane told the Record. “It’s important for us to know so we can intervene and take action, especially if it’s an incident as serious as sexual assault,” she emphasized. If a report is given, RAs are required to inform senior staff members only if an individual is in danger of causing harm to themselves or another person. All other reporting is at the discretion of the RA.

A GRA’s responsibility throughout the reporting process is to obtain the needed information regarding the incident. This includes details such as the involved parties’ names and the date(s) of the incident. The GRA will then bring this information to the Dean of Residence Life, Justin Heth. If the incident involves any form of sexual misconduct, Dean of Student Care Allison Ash will also be informed.

How is the Res Life staff trained to handle incidents that occur on campus?

The spring semester before joining Res Life staff, RAs spend several months in training. Additionally, they are given two weeks of training before their first official semester serving in their new position. Each RA is given a Res Life manual to utilize throughout the entire academic year and is required to attend an RA class for the fall semester.

Part of the RAs’ training includes role-playing simulations for how to handle specific incidents. These simulations can range from assisting a resident struggling with depression to someone bleeding out in a residence hall kitchen. Fischer RA Hannah Lane told the Record that some of her training exercises included “a fire drill, a tornado warning, an active shooter, bleeding and vomit, all one after the other.” When a situation arises where the RA has not been specifically trained to take action, they are instructed to inform the Senior Staff immediately.

How are punishments decided?

There is no objective list of alleged offenses and correlated disciplinary actions that is dispersed to every RA, GRA and RD; Nor is there a list saved on Dean Heth’s desktop. Instead, student misconduct is handled on a case-by-case basis. Heth told the Record that three major questions guide each allegation and as Res Life works to craft the appropriate punishment for each student: “What’s the nature of the situation? What is the student’s response to that situation? What is their conduct and personal past?”

All Res-Life staff members who spoke with the Record mentioned an emphasis on the individual in each case — specifically affording grace and truth to all alleged offenders. In an effort to restore students within their community, the circumstances of each offense play a key role in determining disciplinary outcomes for students, whether a small infraction of quiet hours or more serious cases of sexual assault. Factors like mental health, addictions and outside family issues may influence student behavior and need to be considered in a student care sense. The process warrants deeper understanding of the offender in an effort to “address the whole person throughout the conduct process and not simply focus on the alleged violation,” according to the student conduct policy section of the handbook. Students who break conduct policies do have some control post-offense for their disciplinary outcome as well. Those who come forward of their own volition typically receive lighter consequences.

The Student Handbook also states that each incident will begin with an investigative process which “will typically begin with an initial meeting with the student,” in which RAs, RDs or Heth himself seek to get all the details of what occurred from the student’s perspective. Next, witnesses or complainants are interviewed to gather a more complete understanding of the situation. “The dean will then determine an appropriate outcome,” and students receive notification of the final decision either orally or through written notice, as the Handbook dictates.

Because Res Life’s process does consider a number of relevant factors in each student conduct offense, student punishments don’t always align with one another. Some students know they’ve gotten in trouble for the same offense as another student while receiving different punishments. In this way, there are students on campus who feel the vague disciplinary outcomes for things like drinking, smoking, having sex and even hazing lead to some favoritism for certain student groups or teams. To this end, Heth responded, “there may be some variation in the length of certain results for students due to that student’s story, but there has to be some consistency in what happens for similar offenses.”

Certain offenses do tend to result in general boxes of punishments, so there is some level of consistency. For offenses like small pranks and violations of open floor hours and quiet hours there is a verbal warning. For bigger pranks and egregious open hours violations, a student would receive a written warning from the college. Drugs, alcohol, sex and violence repercussions start at probation and greater. Sometimes RAs handle conduct, sometimes GRAs and RDs come to Heth’s office, but generally tiers of offenses and punishments correlate with the actual punishments students receive. These responses to student misconduct are outlined in the Student Handbook on page 33. They include: fines, community service, confiscation of prohibited property, behavioral and educational requirements, restrictions/housing reassignment, probation, voluntary withdrawal, suspension and expulsion.

Again, no graph of disciplinary actions or a rubric for conduct corrections is dispersed among Res Life staff, but there is some consistency. Some colleges also have a point system where after a certain number of violations and points of misconduct you’re kicked out. Wheaton does not have that and instead tries to look at unique personal situations and to balance grace and truth with an end goal of restoring members of the community.

Res Life also cannot share the details of any student case with other students, faculty or even parents in many cases due to privacy laws. For this reason, it may always be unclear to students why any discrepancy arises in resulting punishments for students and why there are gray areas in these boxes of consistency that sometimes negatively affect students.

Is the victim heard in this process?

According to a former RA and senior Maria Jenkins, a number of students felt their voices went unheard. She told the Record, “Sometimes, [students] wish they would never have reported an offense in the first place. Especially when it comes to sexual assault, because they interview you a bunch of times and in the end you might still live in the same dorm building as the person.” The Record recently reported on the intricacies of a sexual assault case on Wheaton’s campus, so we asked what structures Res-Life has in place to hear the voice of all students who have been victimized by another student in all cases.

First, most cases seen by ResLife involve an individual breaking policy instead of a student harming another student. The Handbook outlines that any complainant will have an interview with Res-Life to tell their side of the story and provide context for any further investigation. Students are also given the full spectrum of Student Care support in free counseling services and medical attention.

Beyond just hearing their story, Heth added that students often are asked what outcome they would like to see through any investigation and disciplinary process. He stated, “When a person hurts another person, we want to involve that student who was hurt and hear their story. I want to hear their voice, ask how they feel we could make things right and give them that voice.” So students do have a voice in the process, but how does that tie into an end result?

Jenkins told the Record, “It’s tough, because there are two people and two stories to each situation, but in the end some girls do see perpetrators on campus even after they came forward and that can be worse. When that student doesn’t have to leave, and maybe just does community service or writes a paper, it feels that your pain was not that serious.” She is still speaking about sexual assault which is more serious than other offenses regarding punishment and student care, but the sentiment is not unnoticed in Res-Life structures and staff. RDs like Stephen Cartwright are made aware of different orders students receive to avoid other students, to refrain from initiating contact and other disciplinary measures, and Cartwright told The Record how seriously he takes each order, saying that his job is to step in and confront even a minor infraction of those orders with gusto.

Wheaton’s campus is only so big, so when student voices are heard and complainants feel hurt, ResLife certainly acknowledges the difficulties of grace, truth and restorative justice in our smaller community.

Is there a difference between something happening on or off campus during the academic year?

No. Each case on or off campus is handled the same, and there are consequences to both actions. The key difference between two similar policy breaches would be the way each offense affects the campus community. Drinking, for example, warrants certain disciplinary actions; however, drinking at home with a buddy affects the campus community in different ways than a kegger thrown on Williston 2 where a number of students could be affected adversely.

What is the amnesty policy?

Around campus, students express a lot of confusion about how the amnesty policy might relate to them or their friends in cases of drugs, alcohol or sexual abuse. There are two parts to Wheaton’s student amnesty policy. The first important policy is the option to self-report. In any instance of policy breaking, students may go directly to ResLife staff members to begin the restorative process. This factors heavily into the student punishment decision process, as self-reporting communicates students have already begun that process, so students who self-report often receive a lighter disciplinary measure.

The second policy is the Medical Amnesty Policy, which is outlined in the student handbook on page 22. According to the policy, “Wheaton does not want the fear of disciplinary action to hinder the appropriate medical response to address incapacitation from alcohol and/or drug use.” But students may wonder how it might affect their friends or other people at the same party where any problems with alcohol or drug overdose might occur. Heth responded to these questions by stating, “Student safety is the most important thing when a student calls with any health or safety concerns. We recognize that students seeking help for themselves or their friends [who] drank or used drugs, but we’re not going to give you a disciplinary consequence for that.” The Medical Amnesty policy exists to mitigate student conduct concerns when safety and health are at risk. Res-Life desires that no students ever prioritize avoiding consequences when choosing between life or death, so the policy removes that barrier.

When do issues go beyond students?

Fischer GRA Peter Yeung told the Record that “a lot of it comes down to when the issue is brought to our attention. We’re held accountable by our actions as much as the student and we take privacy very seriously.” Outside parties are typically brought in at the student’s discretion, which differs on a case-by-case basis. Fischer RA Hannah Lane explained that “the student is really the one who controls how their information gets used.” However, if the incident is a crime, the necessary authorities are brought in to handle the issue accordingly.

Cartwright added that the current student disciplinary guidelines also helps protect student privacy. A cut and dry offense to discipline policy may queue in other students or faculty to personal information or the nature of someone’s behavior, infringing on the privacy of information otherwise protected under FERPA laws.

While the process of enforcing student conduct policies has remained something of a mystery to many students, after taking an in-depth look at the Student Handbook and the role of Res Life, it can become less of a nameless system and better understood by the student body