The Arizona Desert Lamp

Misrepresenting misconduct

Posted in Campus, Politics by Connor Mendenhall on 16 April 2009

Evan did a great job in a short time covering the smorgasbord of Student Services fee requests dumped on the public earlier this week. Alone in an ocean of inanity, the proposal [pdf] from the Dean of Students Office caught my eye (probably because it has pictures).

The portions of the proposal calling for awareness efforts, publicity campaigns, and a new “Safe Cats” program seem as worthless to me as they did to my colleague. But one bit of the proposal is a great idea. From the request:

On our campus the Student Code of Conduct Officers (SCCO) in the DOS often find themselves attempting to provide [guidance and support services] to numerous constituencies, while trying to conduct an impartial investigation, provide student support and preserve the rights of the accused.

The Dean of Students Office proposes the creation of a full-time professional position known as the Coordinator for Student Advocacy and Assistance (CSAA). The CSAA would have an integral role in providing help and support to individual students and communities affected by violence, loss, crime or other student emergencies. The incumbent would have an intimate working knowledge of UA policy and procedure, police procedures and community resources that would allow them to provide students in crisis with resources, support and guidance. The CSAA would also relieve the SCCO’s of the responsibility of assisting students with a process that the SCCO’s are administering — effectively separating the adjudication of the case from the student advocacy function. This allows SCCO’s to concentrate on the investigation while the CSAA works to assess student needs.

[…]

The CSAA position allows for greater continuity of care for students and eliminates student confusion that can result from seeking advocacy services from the same person adjudicating the case.

The Dean of Students disciplinary process is already stacked against students. Unlike real courts, many protections for the accused are weakened or altogether absent: there’s a lower burden of proof, no rules of evidence, and significant authority granted to the administrator conducting a conduct hearing.  Creating a student advocate position independent of the administrators who investigate and prosecute conduct cases would offer a bit more protection of student rights–especially if the position was less feel-good “support and guidance” and more actual advocacy on the behalf of students accused with Code of Conduct violations.

Indeed, this seems like a pretty critical function of any mostly secret parallel quasi-judicial system–important enough that funding it through a “services fee” rather than tuition dollars seems more than a bit backwards. Shouldn’t the Dean of Students get its cash from core and not auxiliary funding sources? I’m not happy paying for a student advocate with a fee, but the idea is a good one in principle.

Now, about those pictures. Included in the proposal is a graph showing an alarming rise in Code of Conduct cases referred to the Dean of Students Office since 2001. It’s offered in support of the assertion that the number of violations “has grown exponentially over the last eight years.” Take a look:

Code of Conduct Violations GraphI’m not sure what sort of wacky exponents they’re using, but the point is clear enough: there’s been a big increase in conduct cases, especially over the last few years.

But I’m hesitant to see this as evidence of a wave of misconduct sweeping campus, and especially not as support for an increase in the sort of violent incidents hyped by the request. Drop the 2001-2002 school year as an outlier (it would be nice to see a few more years back!) and the number of cases between 2002 and 2006 is pretty steady, fluctuating between 450 and 600 or so. The number of cases takes off in 2006-2007, and looks to be pretty stable again between 2007 and today.

What explains the sudden swing? Is it really “a corresponding rise in stalking, harassment, sexual assault, fighting and other violent crimes or violations,” as the proposal implies? Unfortunately, there’s no breakdown of cases by type, so it’s hard to know for sure. But I have another hypothesis: the Red Tag program.

The Red Tag program, which refers students who host loud parties to the Dean of Students Office–even for activity conducted in their own private homes off campus–started in the spring semester of 2007 and has been in effect since.  One good Red Tag bust can result in scads of underage drinking referrals, so it’s no wonder there’s an attendant increase in conduct cases. Moreover, it fits with UAPD’s zeal for focusing on drug and alcohol infractions.

But the worst thing is that there’s no good way to know for sure. Out in the real world, criminal activity (and in many cases the conduct violations referred to the Dean of Students office are or could be criminal, like the popular drug and alcohol diversion program) is referred to real courts, with proceedings available to the media and the public. But the Dean of Students conduct system is an entirely parallel quasi-judicial structure, and though UA is a public university, its proceedings are not public. Instead, student records are protected by the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, hidden from any sort of public review or scrutiny by reporters.

To call our disciplinary structure a system of secret courts isn’t a stretch by any means. Though it’s ostensibly UA policy to refer the most serious cases to criminal courts–like last year’s dorm-room stabbing–there’s no way to know for sure what makes the cut. In theory conduct violations as severe as theft, harassment, and even sexual assault could be mediated and adjudicated within UA’s internal disciplinary system, without any of the public scrutiny that would come were they referred to real courts.

I’m seriously doubtful that this increase in conduct cases represents anything more than an increase in drug and alcohol violations as a result of the Red Tag program. In that case, drastically cutting campus crime would be as easy as simply ceasing to prosecute fake, harmless crimes like drug use and underage drinking, and focusing on real safety and conduct issues instead. But the only thing to be sure of is that the number of cases referred to a system of opaque closed-door hearings with watered down protections for the rights of the accused is on the increase. Neither case is particularly encouraging.

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2 Responses

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  1. cem said, on 16 April 2009 at 8:31 pm

    Consider speaking with Dean Thompson. I think she’ll tell you that the nature of the cases they are dealing with on a regular basis are far more serious now than in the past.

  2. Connor Mendenhall said, on 16 April 2009 at 10:48 pm

    I don’t doubt that there are more serious cases, but the point stands. The system is still opaque, and if there are an increasing number of serious misconduct incidents, that’s all the more reason to divert resources from dealing with harmless ones and towards the serious stuff.

    But, yeah, I’m sure I’ll be in contact with Dr. Thompson.


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