Beyond the Obvious: Examining Subtle and Overt Practices that Impact Racial Justice Work in the Field of Student Conduct

By Chelsea Kott

This post provides an examination of subtle and overt student conduct practices that call into question how well intended practices, such as healing circles and liability reduction, contribute to silencing social change and uphold white supremacy. Furthermore, this calls attention to the complex power dynamics that conduct officers must navigate, both when it comes to upholding students' rights and addressing problematic behavior, while engaging allyship with faculty who demonstrate an effort to advance racial justice. 


Student conduct procedures were born out of racist structures and those oppressive systems are present today. Conduct officers who fail to interrogate these systems are complicit with White supremacy. In light of the national awakening of oppressive social and racial injustices, such as legal protections for police who engage in hate crimes, experts in student conduct must reflect on how the nature of their own work is synonymous with oppressive policing practices. These practices can be both subtle (healing circles) and overt (sanctioning and relationships with police). The following examines subtle and overt practices that are highlighted amidst today's national landscape, with insight into what this means for research for practice.

Student conduct officers have a responsibility to address our own racist practices before we call out others. Let us begin with an examination of subtle practices that may have a larger contribution to racial injustice than initially recognized. Hopefully, most Student Affairs professionals strive to enact safe spaces for brave conversations across institutions of higher education. Often, this means that when a tragedy occurs, such as the murders of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, practitioners work quickly to enact listening sessions, healing circles, and restorative spaces for students. While these are critically valuable and do have a place on a college campus, these can also be seen as tactics to ‘keep students at bay' so that protests do not erupt, and colleges do not face negative media attention. This begs the question, if George Floyd's death occurred before COVID-19, during a time when most campuses were still open, would such healing circles and listening sessions have kept outrage internal, and contributed to an absence of national demonstrations? How do we as conduct professionals, get in the way of social progress, when we are asked to mitigate complaints and concerns at the lowest level? How is our work placating issues that need to be addressed out loud?

Addressing these matters boldly and out loud is critically important. This is where speech becomes a powerful agent of change. However, what do we do when faced with speech that is harmful and supports white supremacy? Embedded within the most complex student conduct and behavioral cases often lies concerns around the freedom of speech. As student conduct officers are called to rectify oppressive practices in student conduct, and actively participate in racial and social justice work, how can conduct officers work within the scope of the law, and campus policies, to address concerning speech that is protected by the 1st amendment? Student conduct officers might begin by examining contradictions in how students and faculty are engaged when reports about concerning speech come forward. Faculty are protected under academic freedom to design and deliver their course content in the way they identify as best fit, yet their right to freedom of speech goes as far as any students' rights under the 1st amendment. Yet, power dynamics at play often support oppressive and racialized practices that often leave concerning faculty speech unaddressed and concerning student speech situated at the center of a dilemma in the student conduct office. How can student conduct officers maintain their duty to engage in practices that call out bias and white supremacy, specifically when it comes to speech, while ignoring faculty speech that supports white supremacy, either covertly, subtly, or in an overt fashion.

Similar power dynamics often leave student conduct officers without the protections to address such concerns. Often, student conduct officers are treated as though they cannot disagree with, nor challenge faculty. However, at the core of our work must always be an allegiance to students' rights. We need to use our positionality to address behavior from an educational and restorative space. While student conduct officers have the power to engage in practices that call out, break down, and repair oppressive practices, we must also reflect on both our own oppressive practices and also the oppressive systems that impact our own efforts. This is where we must seek out allies in this work and partner with social justice minded faculty who lead efforts to engage racial justice work across our campus communities. 

Educational dialogue is often the tool available to conduct officers when it comes to addressing concerning student speech. However, when that tool goes only so far as to exist within the student world, an absence of efforts to engage concerning faculty speech in the same fashion contributes to inequitable power dynamics and harms students. The power that faculty hold over the administration can show up in ways that demand that student conduct officers to ‘fix the problem' in their classroom (the student behavior or student speech that does not meet a faculty member's classroom expectations). Knowing that classroom expectations are often situated in white supremacy and practices that have long served to oppress students of color, student conduct officers have a unique privilege in their position to serve as student advocates and uphold student rights, while working to address faculty responses to student behavior.

Student conduct officers have a responsibility to balance education, social progress, and engage liability reduction, which can often restrict conduct officers to ‘policy' and inhibit them from naming the ways in which they themselves are silenced through power structures. Specifically, conduct officers who hold privilege need to acknowledge the ways in which student conduct officers who hold marginalized identities are routinely oppressed, silenced, punished, and ignored across campus. Similarly, faculty who hold marginalized identities are routinely disciplined by not being ‘free' to show up fully as themselves and are continuously silenced in order to conform and comply with white expectations of “professionalism.” Recently, many campus activists, namely proactive faculty who have long been advocates of social justice, have begun to be seen in ways that highlight their change work out loud. The opportunity to partner with faculty who are advocates of racial justice must not be overlooked. These subtle partnerships can have an impactful outcome on the subtle ways in which practices can advance justice from within the system.

Secondly, and often more acknowledged among conduct officers, is how working in student conduct during a time of amplified racial injustices has called into question our field's own overtly racist structures. For example, when conduct codes such as “disruptive behavior” exist within the context of White supremacy, they serve as a ‘catch all' to address ‘problematic' behavior. So, the question becomes, “What is ‘problematic?'” and “Who are we ‘catching'?” Conduct officers may engage in the standard work of reviewing their data to identify patterns among racial differences of students who are reported for conduct concerns, found responsible, and certain sanctions. However, we must do better. How many conduct officers are interrogating their own data around the racial identities of students who are reported for ‘disruption' and the racial identity of those who reported the behavior? Additionally, conduct officers need to evaluate how their relationships with police are impacting how reporting parties resist or engage in reporting concerns to student conduct offices and how this has an impact on campus safety.
If conduct professionals want to truly be professionals, they need to use their power to interrogate their own practices, partner with stakeholders across campus, challenge their own biases, and stop contributing to practices that subtly amplify injustice.


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