Navigating Student Conduct Through A Virtual Lens

By Katie Newcomb 

In a few short months, student conduct practitioners have found themselves reinventing and adapting their work to fit a virtual model. This change holds
promise as the field continues to transform and evolve. While COVID-19 has forced the field to take drastic steps forward, it has done so without the time to navigate the inevitable challenges. For instance, how do conduct practitioners create a process that is both private and confidential when asking students to participate in a conduct meeting at their home? The purpose of this article is to address these topics by exploring the various challenges that exist, and how professionals can navigate these challenges using both technology, campus partnerships, and by re-examining their process to make it accessible and inclusive for all students. As COVID-19 has completely transformed higher education, conduct practitioners must respond in a way that advances the field of student conduct without neglecting the impact that these challenges will inevitably have on both students and staff members' well-being and success.

For most of us, March 2020 marked an important milestone during which we slowly began to realize that the work we do will never be the same.  In less than a year, student conduct practitioners have found themselves re-inventing and adapting their work to fit a virtual model. This change has been both an incredible challenge, as well as an opportunity for growth as our work and our students evolve. Students today are more adept than ever at using various technologies that support a virtual model, and the platforms that exist are extremely versatile and user-friendly. Unfortunately, navigating these changes in an accelerated timeline due to a national pandemic has left most practitioners both exhausted and unsure of what to do next. One of the greatest challenges that we face is how to support our students in this virtual conduct process.


In the best of times, student conduct can be an emotionally and mentally taxing process for our students, and as we are all well aware, these are not the best of times. While higher education has spent decades developing ways to support our students through mental health resources, wellness initiatives, etc. these resources look very different in our current environment. Some have been significantly limited or reduced, while others have been made completely virtual. It is therefore more important than ever that we as conduct practitioners find ways to connect our students to the resources that are available and help them find the support they need to be successful – before, during, and after a conduct process. In the past, we could pick up the phone during a meeting, connect with an available support person or resource such as counseling, and then walk a student to meet with that resource. In many places – this process is no longer an option or has gone virtual. It doesn't mean that our partners in counseling are less available, but the ways we interact with them and connect with them have changed. In order to manage this change, we need to collaborate with these offices to figure out what the new “normal” will entail. 


For starters, this might include creating and attaching an updated resource sheet to every letter we send out. Especially for schools who are still remote – including not only the contact information, but also the BEST way to contact these resources, as many offices may not be answering phones or responding to voicemails immediately.  We should also consider re-thinking how we train our hearing officers to both offer support during a meeting, and respond in a situation where a student is in crisis, or needs additional support. Training should include both knowledge around the resources that are available and how to access those resources, as well as skills on how to offer support, listen to a student's concerns, and provide a caring environment for them to express their needs. Another option might include developing sanctions that have a greater focus on student wellness. Educational sanctions focused on goal setting, decision making, and strengths based learning can provide both an opportunity for learning as well as  follow up with the student to continue offering support. Regardless of whether it is a first time violation, or a student facing suspension, the need to support and provide resources to our students should be a priority. 


Another new challenge for our students during remote or virtual learning is accessibility and privacy. For both students on campus and those living at home, most schools have switched to a completely virtual process to limit face-to-face interactions. While Zoom and other electronic platforms have made this process easier than ever, there are inherent challenges that arise as a result. One of those challenges for our students is sometimes figuring out where they should hold their meeting – especially if they don't want roommates, parents, or other students overhearing their private business. For one student I met with earlier this year, it meant parking his car on the side of the road at the top of a hill (where he could ensure cell phone reception), and speaking to me while sitting on top of his car.  This resulted in our meeting being disrupted no less than three times when people pulled over to make sure he was okay. I think we can all agree that this was a less than ideal location to hold a conduct meeting. However, for this student, it was the only place that he could speak to me without his parents overhearing the conversation, and in a location where he had reception. For students with roommates, students living at home, and students facing financial challenges that hinder their ability to access technology, wifi, etc., these concerns are paramount to them having a positive and educational experience within the conduct process. 


In order to make sure that our students have the ability to participate in our process, it is essential that we identify both where our students can hold these meetings, and how we provide them access to do so. For students on campus – it is important to identify multiple locations that could be offered for a student to use to participate in a virtual process. In identifying these locations, we should be collaborating with facilities, residence life, and other departments who oversee these spaces to learn what is available. At many institutions, campus spaces have been re-distributed to allow for classes to be spread out, and for other logistical purposes. Conduct is not the only office that works with confidential information, and it is possible that other offices have also worked to identify these types of locations and might be willing to share. Ideally, these locations would be soundproof and have limited windows for others to see in. They also would be small enough that it would inhibit others from trying to access the space while it is occupied – such as a small study room, an unused residence hall room, or a small conference space. 


For students living at home, this topic becomes considerably more challenging. While we can identify campus spaces for students to use, it is much harder to do so in communities where our students don't always have access to transportation, to technology, or to reliable internet. Some basic suggestions might include accessing local resources such as libraries or coffee shops where there is either a sense of privacy and one can use headphones, or potential private rooms that truly allow for a confidential conversation. Another option might be offering more flexible times when a student might have more access to privacy – such as when parents or siblings might be at work or in school, or even sleeping. This might be especially important for our international students who are living in different time zones, or even students who are navigating full time work schedules while living at home. As a last resort – a hearing officer might even consider giving a student the opportunity to respond to questions in writing – rather than speaking over the phone.  


Since most students are navigating this experience for the first time, it is also important that we don't force our students to search out these options, but rather provide them in our correspondence – letting them know that we have flexibility to help them schedule the meeting at a date/time that works for them, and that if they need a private space – we can work with them to identify a space that fits their needs. Similarly, in terms of access to technology – conduct professionals should familiarize themselves with the resources currently offered by their institutions to help students. Most academic departments have spent the summer navigating how to support students who struggle with access to internet because it is an essential tool for online learning. Using these resources can be a simple, yet effective way to offer support and tools to a student in need.


While the conduct process has changed significantly over the past several months – the goal of supporting and educating our students has not. In my experience, conduct practitioners are some of the most empathetic and caring individuals in our field – which is what makes this work both extremely rewarding and sometimes painfully challenging at the same time. As we navigate the changes to our field and to the world, we have an amazing opportunity to re-think how we support our students during this time, and how we can both advocate for and educate our students in a way that will lead to their growth and ultimately their success.


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