Trauma Informed Practices and Their Impact on Fundamental Fairness

By Robert Alston 

As student conduct administration systems have been built, challenged, and modified they continue to be based on legal concepts protecting educational property; property laws that have been shown to protect and reinforce whiteness (Harris, 1993). While student conduct practices have evolved to offer less judicial resolution pathways (e.g. alternative dispute resolution, restorative justice practices, etc.), judicially structured practices have continued to produce findings and sanctions as they have post-Dixon. While there is work to be done on policies and procedures to be sure, a new concern is rising for student conduct administrators: how to meet the educational needs of a student while thinking backward from a courtroom deposition during each portion of their response to a report (“A systemic approach to due process in higher education,” 1999).


    No matter our institution type, region, or funding sources, one thing remains constant: a student brings their unique and whole self to any interaction with a student conduct administrator (SCA)1. Our roles as educators ask us to be helping professionals, which informs how we serve the whole student; we read, we listen, we explain, we translate ideas, and we seek to motivate student development. When SCAs are practicing these complex skills with the unique student in front of them, we can also start to think backward from a courtroom deposition during our responses to a report (“A Systemic Approach to Due Process in Higher Education,” 1999).

One of my challenges in working backwards from a ‘courtroom in my head' and the stress it can create (Glassman, 2020) is staying focused on the student in front of me. As a helping professional, my primary hope is to contribute to the growth of the student with whom I'm working. I hope that you agree with this goal, and I offer that a fundamental way to stay focused on the whole student, and simultaneously the student in front of you, is to integrate trauma-informed practices into each interaction you have (and your process has) with students. This integration can support an SCA's goals for student development, as well as enhance the fundamental fairness of their decisions.

What Students Bring With Them

Many SCA professionals are already aware of trauma's impact on individuals based on common overlap with conducting or supporting sexual misconduct investigations and/or adjudication. This is best practice for a reason; perceived/experienced threats to one's life, a close personal encounter with death/violence, as well as other ‘survival' experiences can be traumatic events (Hayes & Moore, 2015). Traumatic events can create disruption to human brain functions, flipping control of a person's actions to the autonomic nervous system which can create unthinking responses (Gross, 2020; Howdyshell & Smith, 2014). Not all traumatic events elicit such a response, though initial events and subsequent reminders of that traumatic event (‘triggers') can result in trauma responses and symptomology (Gross, 2020). While SCA work with students can seem easily connected to traumatic events, I would offer that students also bring challenges related to possibly traumatic events indirectly linked to any alleged policy violation, like housing/food insecurity (Broton & Goldrick-Rab, 2018) or racial macro- or micro-aggressions (Bourke, 2010; Carter, 2007).

Socially Constructed Context

Educational systems have been challenged as discriminatory before (AAUW - A Brief History of Title IX, 2010; Brown v. Board of Education, 1954), and these challenges can result in guidance from the Federal government or case law considerations. I highlight this purposefully under the heading of this section to identify that SCAs continue to work within historically imperfect (read: white-centered and patriarchal) systems. SCA systems have continued to be built, challenged, and modified based on legal concepts protecting educational property (Dixon v. Alabama State Board of Education, 1961); legal concepts that have been shown to protect and reinforce whiteness (Harris, 1993). While student conduct practices have indeed evolved to offer less ‘judicial' resolution pathways (e.g. alternative dispute resolution, restorative justice practices, etc.), SCA practices remain rooted in the legal frameworks of US Constitutional Law (Lake, 2017; Lucas, 2009; Schrage & Giacomini, 2009). Not only is there work to be done to (re)construct our policies and processes to account for a basis on laws that elevate whiteness (Schrage & Giacomini, 2009), but studies have shown SCA's need to improve student outcomes from our disciplinary systems themselves (Allen, 1994; Howell, 2005; Nelson, 2017a, 2017b; Stimpson & Janosik, 2011, 2015). This review should ensure that SCA practices, language, and educational outcomes are fundamentally fair for involuntarily minoritized students.

More Equitable Fairness

One ongoing, and present, foundation for defining a traumatic event is that the person experiencing the event gets to define it for themselves as traumatic (Hayes & Moore, 2015). As America's historically white-serving colleges and universities purposefully (and rightfully) have expanded access to Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPoC) students (Salins et al., 2019), an imperative is to expand the review of policies/procedures to reflect the individuals served. Certainly, SCAs should not assume anything about the students with whom we meet. Our policies and procedures do make such assumptions, and we should work against those assumptions.

Educational due process has several core tenets (in general terms, the right to notice, hearing, & appeal), all of which are rooted in the concept of fundamental fairness (Baker, 1992). Student conduct processes also rely on “administrators to recognize the importance of the dignity of each individual involved in the resolution of disputes in higher education” (“A Systemic Approach to Due Process in Higher Education,” 1999, p. 35). Though many of the legal challenges of student conduct decisions to date have been based on procedural due process concerns, emerging concerns around the fairness of decision-makers have also created grounds for appeals, as well as  court examination (Doe v. Brandeis University, 2016; Doe v. The Rector and Visitors of George Mason University, 2016).

Given the frequency of our student interactions, and based on the experiences of BIPoC students in a white-serving society, we can expect that the likelihood of a student experiencing a traumatic event (and the possible responses and symptoms they may display) has risen commensurately. Furthermore, intersections across two or more involuntarily minoritized2 identities drastically reduces a student's self-reported well-being within post-secondary institutions (Salins et al., 2019). A pathway to address person-centered concerns while policy reviews and adjustments to policies/processes occur is to enhance trauma-informed practice to encompass all interactions within the student conduct process. By becoming more trauma aware, and moving toward wholly trauma-informed practices (Gross, 2020), SCAs can begin (or continue) to more equitably meet our students' basic rights.

Trauma-Informed Solutions

Adoption of trauma-informed practices has been shown to build student resilience, enhance feelings of safety, promote culturally responsive policies and practices, build community collaboration, and support students' sense of belonging (Kataoka et al., 2018). With the goal of elevating the actual and perceived experiences of students within conduct processes, enmeshing trauma-informed training and practice can support students with and without trauma history and can help mitigate concerns around power dynamics within an educational conversation. Trauma-informed practices reinforce a person-centered-approach that is both affirmed in case law (Donohue v. Baker, 1997; Flaim v. Medical College of Ohio, 2005), advances an administrator's opportunity to support a student's individual learning (Gross, 2020), and can actively support a student's substantive due process rights.

Multiple pathways and resources exist to support individuals (or teams/groups) experiencing trauma responses/symptomology (Alston et al., 2015; How Trauma-Informed Schools Help Every Student Succeed | CPI, n.d.; Lipsky & Burk, 2009; Lynch, 2017; Mesirow, 2018; Wilson & Thomas, 2004).  The strategies that can best support an SCA's responsibility for fundamental fairness are, to me, identified as the five Ss by Karen Gross (2020) as follows:

  • Stability -- Seek consistency in the folx students interact with and the ways in which they interact. A steady environment, coupled with this consistency, can provide a traumatized individual an opportunity to reestablish stability after it's been taken away.

  • Structure -- While student conduct policies and processes are often beacons of consistency, SCAs can be drawn into the ‘emergency of the day' and need to move student meetings or feel the need to rush through a decision in order to meet a deadline. When faced with a traumatic event, individuals can create a sense of comfort through structure. This isn't just running the process, however, but providing additional explanations for students when asked and evaluating your meeting space for its ability to provide focus which can “facilitate functionality” (Gross, 2020, p. 118).

  • Safety – While this is a specific goal for many student conduct processes and SCAs, the safety traumatized individuals desire is one of non-judgement and empathy. Many SCAs practice and use this skill set, but it is particularly important when supporting traumatized folx.  If a student cannot feel safe in the space with you, they will be less likely to engage in the critical reflection SCAs often desire.

  • Subtlety – Each small point of contact, phone call, email, greeting, can modify a traumatized individual's experience in the meeting space. While things aren't always in an SCA's control, be attentive to the things that can be addressed. As an example, think of questions you ask students at the beginning of a meeting to build rapport. If one is about having fun over the summer… that might be one to leave out given the ongoing COVID-19 epidemic. Though it might be simple, the smallest interaction can produce trauma response or symptoms for a student.

  • Someone(s) – Human connection is the root of much of trauma-informed work. Traumatized individuals can have a difficult time connecting and attaching to people.  When working with the student in front of you, try to find ways to connect, evaluate if you are a good fit to link with the student. If you are, make it happen. If you are not, find someone who might be a better fit and seek to connect them together. While this can seem outside a SCAs scope, our roles have to expand in order to help students move forward from traumatic events.


Trauma-informed practices can and should be foundations of our day-to-day interactions with campus community members and students. Given the nature and impact of survival action on organic human systems, I offer that we should not limit trauma-informed practices to sexual misconduct allegations, but purposefully reconstruct our daily interactions to be more trauma aware, if not trauma-informed. I share this as a call for reflection and action, because a student may meet with you carrying an invisible knapsack of privilege (McIntosh, 2019); and another student may be carrying an invisible knapsack of traumatic experiences with authority, educational systems, or factors that seem disconnected to your meeting with them, yet live in the front of their mind. Our responsibility to fundamental fairness asks us to treat those two students equitably, and trauma-informed interactions seem to be a fair place to start.

1 An SCA is anyone who has any responsibility for investigating and adjudicating matters of student conduct (Glick, 2016).
2 Ogbu & Simons  describe two key features of involuntary minorities as: “(1) [people that] did not choose but were forced against their will to become a part of the United States, and (2) [people that] themselves usually interpret their presence in the United States as forced on them by white people” (1998, p. 165)


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