Clear and Convincing Sets a New Standard
Published: Friday, October 25, 2013
Updated: Friday, October 25, 2013 02:10
More than one year ago, the student body overwhelmingly voted in support of raising the evidentiary standard for Student Code of Conduct violations from “more likely than not” to “clear and convincing.” Since Vice President for Student Affairs Todd Olson implemented this policy in February, student leaders say they have noticed a significant improvement in the way cases are adjudicated.
Yet challenges, such as raising the evidentiary standard off campus, persist.
Former GUSA executives Clara Gustafson (SFS ’13) and Vail Kohnert-Yount (SFS ’13) spearheaded the campaign to change the standard, which applies to all disciplinary violations except sexual assault. Their predecessors, Mike Meaney (SFS ’12) and Greg Laverriere (COL ’12), began pushing to raise the evidentiary standard and laid the foundation for the referendum during their term as GUSA executives.
Effects of the change have been especially visible on the Residential Judicial Council, one of the bodies responsible for handling disciplinary violations.
“With the change to clear and convincing, we had the opportunity to codify within our constitution and within our training materials what exactly we need to find someone responsible for an infraction of the Student Code of Conduct,” RJC councilmember Nicholas Adams (SFS ’14) said.
This included holding an additional training session in which councilmembers worked to define “clear and convincing,” which does not have a self-evident threshold like that of “more likely than not.”
“For me, it’s the responsibility not of the student to prove to me that they’re innocent, but whoever wrote the report to prove to me that they are responsible,” Adams said.
In practice, this has led some RJC members to alter their approach to cases.
“For some members of the council, I have seen a bit of a shift where the bar has been risen. … Students have a greater opportunity to present their own side,” Adams said. “As a body, we have been a lot more united on our opinion on what it would take to prove a person responsible, and, as a result, I think students feel more confident.”
Student Advocacy Office Co-Chair Michelle Mohr (COL ’15) has also seen improvements in the disciplinary process.
“They’ve been a lot better at communicating about incidents. Instead of waiting for three or four weeks, students are getting their emails a lot quicker,” Mohr said.
While there is no data available to judge how many students have been affected by the raised standard since February, one female sophomore has experienced its benefits. After being found with friends in a freshman dorm room last January with a nearly empty bottle of alcohol, the student, who wished to remain anonymous because of the nature of her disciplinary violation, was written up and called before the RJC.
“[The RA] had no reason to knock on our door — and then he sees an empty bottle of alcohol on the floor and says that we need to hand over our GOCards,” she said. “Because we weren’t being loud, rowdy or drunk, they didn’t press charges because it wasn’t clear or convincing that we had been drinking.”
Despite these improvements, students and alumni expressed concern that the raised standard has yet to be extended off campus.
“Having the burden of evidence changed on campus was a pretty big win for students, but there’s still a long ways to go,” Gustafson said. “I think the Student Code of Conduct needs to be equal across the board. I understand that we need to have well-thought-out actions off campus, but I would hope that we would treat other people as well as we treat ourselves. I understand the need to appease the neighbors, but I don’t think that’s enough.”
Despite student pressure on the issue, Olson remained mum on whether the university would move forward with equalizing the standard off campus in the future.
“I do not have any updates on that right now,” Olson wrote in an email to The Hoya. “We believe that this heightened standard of proof, in alignment with the clearer layout of the Code of Student Conduct, has brought more transparency to the entire process, and we are pleased with the thoughtful and ongoing dialogue around this issue.”
The sophomore who avoided disciplinary sanctions last year because of the higher evidentiary standard said that the continuation of a “more likely than not” standard off campus is factoring into her decision whether or not to live off campus.
“Just knowing that you can get in trouble with the school for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, I’m leaning more toward staying on campus,” she said.