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Equal treatment for personal growth

Observer Editorial | Friday, September 13, 2013

It’s a Friday night. You’re in a dorm room on campus, enjoying a few beers. You step into the hallway to catch up with a friend. Suddenly, a resident assistant (RA) turns the corner and sees you, drink in hand. And you are definitely not 21.
What happens next?
Some students might be able to escape back into the dorm room with nothing more than a disapproving look or a curt word. Some students might meet with their rector and then see the incident evaporate. And, in the past, some would be referred straight to the Office of Residence Life.
The disparities between strict residence halls and lenient residence halls are obvious to most Notre Dame students, and the consequences of violating the University Standards of Conduct vary according to when and where a student is caught.
Getting “Res-Lifed” was an involved, stressful and lengthy process that could have affected a student for the rest of his or her college career. A large portion of that stress was the result of uncertainties in the disciplinary process of Residence Like. Students worried about the severity of their punishments, how their parents might be involved, if their scholarships would be at risk and what potential employers might see on students’ records. The biggest issue found in the two-year review was the inconsistency of how situations were handled. This harkens back to a disparity in each dorm’s disciplinary process.
Enter the Office of Community Standards, the University’s response to these discrepancies as a result of a two-year research project.
The goal of the newly titled Office of Community Standards (OCS) is to reconfigure the previously arbitrary disciplinary process so it is more consistent, transparent, accessible and formative for all students, regardless of the dorm in which they live or where they choose to socialize.
While the University Standards of Conduct all Notre Dame students must follow did not change under OCS, the University said its goal was for the disciplinary process to change so that it showed a greater focus on holistic student development.
During the research period preceding this transition, the University found “procedural inconsistencies with which cases were referred to the Office of Residence Life,” according to the OCS website.
Before, some rectors could handle small disciplinary problems “in dorm,” while other rectors could refer their residents directly to Residence Life. A student’s fate depended on the personalities and preferences of the rector, assistant rectors (ARs) and RAs.
Now, under the new OCS procedure, every rector is required to document the outcome of every meeting.
While the reporting criteria for each dorm will be more standardized through OCS, the University said the motivation behind this transition is for the outcomes of student disciplinary infractions to be customized to each student, in order to focus on the development and formation of that student. When a first infraction is reported, the student’s rector handles the case as he or she sees fit. If the student commits subsequent offenses, the situation is escalated to OCS. OCS then decides if the situation calls for a meeting with the rector, a conference with an OCS staff member or a more formal hearing.
This new process highlights the importance of the rector, the ARs and the RAs more than ever. In order for this new system to work, the chain of command within each dorm must be consistent. And the natural outcome of that seems to be that dorms known for being too lenient must become stricter, while dorms known for being too harsh must become more lenient.
Furthermore, the rector plays a significant role through OCS because he or she helps decide the outcome of each incident. In the case that OCS decides an infraction should be followed by a meeting, the rector faces the challenge of getting to know his or her resident and fully understanding the context of the infraction in order to productively tailor the outcome to the student.
The OCS website states formative outcomes might include mandatory attendance at workshops, a required conversation with a University partner or administrator, written apologies by the student to those he or she harmed, restitution and written assignments prompting reflection on the incident. Professional referral outcomes might include alcohol screening, alcohol counseling and psychological assessment, according to the OCS website.
In theory, this transition is positive. Equality for all students in all residence halls is a good thing, and no one will protest a move toward more transparency. The Editorial Board agreed that all students should be held to the same sets of standards and that increased transparency and customized punishments will hopefully reduce the psychological wear and tear on each student throughout the process.
The Editorial Board, however, was split about whether or not this new system would actually result in the same consequence for the same action by students who share similar standing in the community, no matter the location of the incident. We were also divided about whether or not escalating incidents to OCS will positively affect the living environment on campus. There is still an opportunity for the disciplinary process to be inconsistent if rectors, ARs and RAs unequally report incidents according to their preferences and personalities. The community will need to invest a lot of trust in members of hall staffs, who are charged with fairly discerning which incidents to report.
We know the safety, health and well-being of each student are the University’s highest priorities. The rules and regulations that protect students from harassment, assault, theft, emotional distress and academic dishonesty are part of preserving the Notre Dame community, and it is only right that everyone is equally required to follow them and equally punished for transgressions.
Under the new Office of Community Standards, each student will experience equal treatment throughout the disciplinary process, participate in the punishments tailored to their needs and exit the proceedings as a better member of the community.