As a residence life professional, resolving student conduct issues is an important component of your position. While variations among institutions are common, most staff members will resolve at least minor policy violations (i.e. noise, low level harassment, first time alcohol incidents) in accordance with residential policy. Many institutions will also allow and/or encourage residence life staff to assume a more active role in judicial affairs (i.e. non-residential) by serving on conduct boards or as a University mediator.
Regardless of your exact involvement in student discipline, resolving student conduct issues is an excellent opportunity to build relationships. The primary vehicle for building these relationships is the disciplinary meeting – a one on one discussion between you, as the hearing officer, and the student alleged to have violated policy. Sometimes these meetings can provoke a touch of anxiety, especially in newer professionals. While understandable, I believe it’s more useful to regard this experience as an opportunity to begin a relationship with the student sitting across from you. Over the years, I have developed a general style that I adapt, contingent upon the situation and the student. It has served me well and disbanded many of the feelings frequently associated with an experience students might describe as “going to the principle’s office.”
Below are some suggestions regarding the disciplinary meeting. Keep in mind that each situation is unique and should be regarded as such. These suggestions represent general ideas that you can adjust based on your personality, style and the situation at hand.
1. Do the unexpected.
Students may arrive at your disciplinary meeting expecting a less than pleasant experience. They know why they have been called to your office and are expecting the resultant meeting to immediately address alleged poor conduct. Don’t. Take a few minutes to simply talk with the student about college, classes, their roommate, where they are from, what their plans are upon graduation. Build a relationship in those few minutes concentrating on the whole student. When it’s time to discuss the real reason for the appointment, use a transition that works for you. I usually say something along the lines of “Ok, we should talk about why we’re here today.” At this point your student is likely more relaxed and comfortable compared to when they first arrived.
2. Shake hands.
Simple, but effective, shaking hands immediately establishes rapport. It also indicates your acknowledgement of a student’s adulthood. Furthermore, shaking hands, in my view, shows that you are accepting of the student before you. In other words, it’s not the person you’re challenging – rather it’s their conduct.
3. Ask insight-generating, open-ended questions.
For example, asking a student “did you do this?” or “are you guilty” is not only a one word generating answer, it provides no insight to you or the student regarding the incident. One of my frequent choices is “what do you think about all this…” which essentially asks a student to reflect on their conduct and being in my office for less than positive reasons. I often ask students what they would do differently or what they learned as a result of this experience. I almost always ask if “people at home…” are aware of this situation and “what they think about it…” (the reason I don’t ask about ‘parents’ is because some students are estranged from, or have otherwise poor relations with, their parents). Regardless of the exact questions you use, be sure they stimulate thought and reflection in your student. Not only are these types of questions more insightful, they also support the learning mission of higher education.
4. Allow the student to tell his or her story.
Discipline procedures vary by institution. Consider a standard alcohol incident. At some institutions, the procedure is to inform the student of the disciplinary consequences. If s/he desires to challenge this automatic finding of responsibility they must initiate the requisite procedure. In this scenario, the opportunity to build relationships is limited. Furthermore, students lack the opportunity to tell their story. Thus this suggestion – “allow the student to tell his or her story” – can be a significant diversion from established practice. Often, students know they have violated policy; they simply want to be heard. In following this suggestion, even if a case is open and closed, you should still give the student a full opportunity to speak their mind.
5. Continue the relationship.
It might be easy – indeed it might even be the norm – for your judicial meeting to mark the end of interactions with a given student. Consider the following scenario: You hold a judicial meeting; a student receives their sanction, completes the imposed requirements accordingly, and is released from the probationary or warning status. These scenarios do, of course, occur, even with the most enthusiastic student life administrator. However, these should be the exception and not the norm. In my view, judicial meetings should be regarded as the beginning of a relationship with a student. Depending on your college’s size and/or your role on the campus, you will likely see this student again. It is, for example, quite common for me to see students later that same day: in the dining hall, in the student recreation center, at a sporting event. Take these opportunities to continue the good foundation created during your initial meeting: say hello, ask a few easy questions, and, most importantly, use their name. The positive message you send in this brief interaction is important in solidifying a sound relationship.
6. Follow up.
This is standard procedure for resident advisors and it should be for professional staff as well. Make an appointment at the mid-way point in the student’s sanction to assess their progress, answer questions, and provide guidance where necessary. As before, don’t begin this meeting with questions specific to their sanction. Inquire first about them as a person – their classes, their summer plans, and their involvement with the University. Ask questions that connect information from your first meeting to the present: “When we first met, you talked about changing your major…any movement on that.” Demonstrate that you’re concerned with them as a person, and not simply as someone who violated policy. After a while, be sure to ask about the progress with the sanction and direct the conversation accordingly. For example, if you assigned service, inquire about their hours, where they did them and what they thought about the experience.
7. Hold students accountable.
It’s important to establish a culture where students placed on university sanction know they will be held accountable. Each sanctioned student will, of course, interact with other students. If s/he is allowed to drift and does not complete requirements in a timely manner, word will likely spread. The converse is also true: through follow up meetings and clear expectations, students know they will be held accountable. This sentiment gets communicated to other students in his/her network. If no progress has been made, be firm. Just because you’re building a relationship with the student doesn’t mean you’re a pushover. Give them clear time limits (i.e. “I’d like to see 5 of your service hours completed and documented by March 30, 2005”) and then arrange a follow up meeting. While establishing this culture will take time, the benefits for all involved are significant.
8. Positive reinforcement.
Students who complete requirements in a timely fashion should be supported; ask them what they learned, what insights they gained, and how this could apply to future scenarios. If you’ve learned about the student, suggest that they get involved in a club or organization that appears to match their interests or educational future. I believe in being very open with students; as such, I’m more than willing to speak about how pleased and proud I am of their resolution. I also believe that turning a negative situation into a positive outcome is the best way to deal with these sorts of incidents. By completing sanctions, and not engaging in similar behavior, students do exactly that.
9. Know the code.
Student codes of conduct, residential policy and procedures etc. all vary by institution. Today’s students are well informed and have ready access to this information. Do not allow yourself to enter a meeting where a student may have legitimate policy and/or procedural questions to which you do not have answers. Know your institution’s policies and procedures thoroughly before you enter your first judicial meeting; follow your institution’s procedures precisely and take thorough notes both during and after your meeting.
Judicial meetings are not an exact science. There are many subtle nuances that you will learn with time, experience and through professional development. While the suggestions in this article work well in my professional practice, I would encourage you to find your own style. Talk to your judicial affairs office or more seasoned residence life staff for their insights. Ask to sit in on more complicated meetings so that you might learn the challenges presented in these scenarios; read judicial affairs articles and consider attending a regional drive-in workshop on this topic. Take each of these experiences as an opportunity to learn and craft your own unique approach to resolving student conduct issues.
Submitted by Mark Bauman, Assistant Director of Student Standards and Area Coordinator, Bloomsburg University