Starting a new position at a new institution can be challenging enough, without having to manage student discipline. For many of us in the Residence Life and Housing field, telling students what they can and can’t do sounds too similar to our experiences growing up. Who wants to be mom or dad to any number of college students?! Who wants to be the “bad guy” with students, when our job is to establish positive relationships and help students see us as sources of support? Well, the bad news is that for many of us, disciplining others will always be a part of our responsibilities. Even if you have no responsibilities for student conduct, you will need to call upon the same skills that are used to discipline students if you supervise anyone at all, no matter how informally. And that’s also part of the good news: what you learn as a discipline officer will serve you in good stead in many roles. You will need these skills as a supervisor, manager, and if you choose, as a parent.
Now that we have all recognized that the disciplinary role is challenging, let’s consider some steps you can take to make it easier.
Understand the philosophy and approach of your institution and department
This will give you an overall context for your work with students. Most institutions espouse an educational approach, but there is some variation between colleges. You will also find that the preferences and style of your senior disciplinary officer will influence institutional and departmental approach. Talk with experienced staff about how they view the philosophy of the process and specific examples that bolster their perspective.
Understand your role within the context of the institutional process
At some colleges, you might have responsibility for insuring your student staff appropriately confront and document incidents. Other institutions might expect you to serve as the chairperson to a hearing board. There are many combinations between these two extremes and you need to discover the expectations and limits to your authority. Along with this, you ought to insure you understand the disciplinary process from beginning to end. This will help you place yourself in context, but you also need to be able to explain the process to students and student staff.
Become familiar with the Student Code of Conduct
Yes, I can hear the groaning. Your Code may be lengthy, it may be written in very formal language, but to do the best job possible you need to understand how your Code is structured. There are several items to pay particular attention to as you review your Code of Conduct.
• Standard of Proof – What standard of proof is required? Most colleges use “a preponderance” of evidence, but others use a more stringent standard. Be sure you are clear on what is necessary to find a student responsible for a policy violation.
• Your role – Look for printed information that applies to your role. For example, if your role is limited to confrontation and documentation, are there deadlines? If you are a hearing officer, look for anything that describes hearing procedures. Review the Code carefully for anything that you are required to do or insure.
• Policies – Your Code will specify the policies at your institution and may refer to other publications for other department’s regulations (ie, parking, computing policies, residence hall regulations, etc.)
• Sanctions – A list of available sanctions will be included in your Code and may also note any limits on who can impose some of these sanctions. For example, at Lycoming College, only our All College Judicial Board has the authority to suspend or expel students.
Discover student, staff, and faculty perceptions of the process
Ask around to learn what others think of the disciplinary process at your institution. You may gain valuable information from students about their perceptions of who makes disciplinary decisions, or about the fairness of the process. Faculty and staff will, of course, have their own perceptions. The point in gathering this information is not to suggest that you should cater to one group or another on campus. Instead, this information can help you to know how to speak about the process. You might, for example, learn that students believe decisions are made by a single person, when your process insures a hearing before a board. Or that faculty are very concerned about student conversations concerning the severity (or lack thereof) with sanctioning.
As the year progresses, pay attention to student patterns in your hall, or on campus in general if you are at a small college
You need to be careful to not stereotype or generalize a group of students, but it is helpful to periodically review student behavior and look for patterns. Do a large number of incidents and violations involve women or men? Are violations occurring within members of the same floor community (but perhaps not on their own floor)? Is any student organization or athletic group overly represented in discipline situations? Have you seen an increase in a particular violation type? If you see patterns, think about who might be able to help you carefully intervene. Coaches? Faculty? Organization advisor? Helping two or more student staff work together?
Focus on your role as an educator
This, above all else, is important to those who are concerned about how they will be perceived by students (and others). Your role as an educator is not limited to your interactions with students who might participate in the disciplinary process. You have the ability to educate students about standards of conduct and the values that the institution espouses. Sharing information about policies and consequences for violations, as well as how the process works may help students make better choices and avoid involvement in the discipline process! Faculty, staff and parents often benefit from the same types of information.
During individual interactions with students, you have the opportunity to help them examine past choices and determine ways to prevent further problems. For those focused on student growth and development, this a time to get to know the student and help him/her understand him/herself so that they learn and grow from the interaction.
Attend to legal and ethical requirements
Spend some time becoming familiar with the requirements of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) and what this means for confidentiality of student information. You should also investigate the professional standards that apply to disciplinary actions. Web sites are available for the Association for Student Judicial Affairs, the American College Personnel Association, the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators, and the Association of College and University Housing Officers – International.
Be aware of your resources, on campus and off
Your supervisor and any specialists at your institution can assist you with discipline matters. Remember that your Campus Police department (or equivalent) will have at least some involvement in criminal matters (if not most discipline issues). Several professional organizations can provide resources, information and guidance including the Association for Student Conduct Affairs, American College Personnel Association, National Association of Student Personnel Administrators, and the Association of College and University Housing Officers – International.
Submitted by Denise L. Robinson, Assistant Dean/Director of Residence Life, Lycoming College