Student conduct issues in the residence halls is not a new concept. It has been a concern since the inception of the first residence hall. As faculty and administration strive to meet the developmental needs of students, resident assistants join the search for quality standards, civility and educational opportunities in the location where students spend the majority of their time – the residence halls.
Resident Assistants (RA’s) can be effective members of the University Judicial process if three things occur. First and foremost, Resident Assistants must be clear on their role in the judicial process. Secondly, Resident Assistants must be familiar with university policies and procedures; they are primary referral agents for students on campus. Finally, Resident Assistants must exhibit behavior that is above reproach; they are “front-line” staff members and they serve as role models for the entire campus community.
The RA’s role is to observe, confront and report inappropriate behavior. Exhibiting a fair, just and consistent approach while fulfilling this role is extremely important. This is accomplished by setting firm, clear expectations for all students at the beginning of the year. Residents are keenly aware when a RA shirks their responsibilities as a limit setter.
The role of the RA during the judicial process is completely different than the role of other staff members in the department. Resident Director’s role is to conduct disciplinary, informational meetings and to initiate charges with documented students. Judicial/Disciplinary Board members, who usually volunteer for this responsibility, hear disciplinary cases and make recommendations to the Director of Judicial Affairs or their designee. Dean of Students, Vice Presidents, and on rare occasions, Presidents, hear cases that have been appealed by students. Each role should be clear and succinct.
Resident Assistants must be aware of university policies and judicial procedures. Almost all universities have written policies, which are located in the student handbook. When students are allegedly involved in incidents that violate the Student Conduct Code, they meet with a housing or residential representative (i.e., RD), to discuss the details of the case. During this meeting, charges are assigned and students are given the opportunity to accept responsibility or contest the charges via a hearing officer or hearing board. If a student accepts responsibility for their actions, a sanction is assigned in writing. Formal sanctions issued to students who are found responsible for violations of university policy include written warnings, probation, residence hall relocation, residence hall removal and/or ban. In rare instances, university suspension or expulsion can be imposed. Usually, this occurs after a formal hearing has been conducted. Educational sanctions may include community service, topical seminars, programs or apology letters.
A student may choose a formal hearing with a Judicial Board. Some universities establish Faculty/Administrative boards while others utilize a peer-run conduct board; hybrid boards are becoming more common. A peer review board is beneficial in a judicial system. When students see other students participating on judicial boards, they are more apt to vocalize a sense of fairness. The hearing option involves the presentation of documented testimony, the presentation of witnesses and the presentation of testimony by the accused. Accused students are given the opportunity to question others. Boards recommend a responsible or not responsible decision for each charge. The Director of Judicial Affairs issues a formal letter to the student. A right to an appeal is contained in the letter. All appealed decisions are final.
The final expectation for RA’s regarding the judicial process is to exhibit behavior that is beyond reproach and free from impropriety. Residential Life Departments should develop a code of ethics that RA’s are required to follow while they are in this position. Resident Assistants need to be aware of FERPA (Family Educational Right to Privacy Act) guidelines which protects a student’s right to privacy with regard to educational records. Discussions regarding ongoing judicial cases should not be entertained with others, except as necessary for the resolution of the case. Confidentiality should be maintained and respected. If a RA is called as a university witness, they should make themselves available for the hearing to reinforce all written documents that have been submitted. RA’s should not be swayed by personal biases or partisan demands before, during or after an incident has occurred.
Residence halls are inevitably the location where students test the limits of university rules and regulations. Resident Assistants play a vital role in the adjudication of violations by confronting inappropriate behavior, documenting incidents, serving as witnesses at judicial board hearings and serving as positive role models. The fundamental elements of the Student Code of Conduct are protected by the actions of the staff members who are interacting with students on a daily basis – the Resident Assistants.
Submitted by Denise O’Neill, Assistant Dean of Students, Hofstra University