When things go off course

Author: Tara Hunt ’12

It started with a ghost story. Several, actually. The Office of Residence Life and Housing was haunted by exaggerated tales of disciplinary hearings. Haunted by yarns of heavy-handed sanctions that left students barred from graduate school. By accusations that the staff didn’t care about students. By the verb “res-lifed.”

Administrators eventually realized that most students didn’t understand ResLife’s goals, procedures or ideology, and most stories were being told by students who had never gone through the process. So to clear cobwebs, they did away with it all.

Illustration by Dan Page

By the start of the fall semester of 2013, the Office of Residence Life and Housing was dismantled. In its place sprouted the Office of Community Standards, a new group assigned to handle issues of student conduct. The goals remained similar — to educate students in decision-making, to keep students safe and to help them along their formational journey as young adults. And the policies haven’t changed much — there’s still an alcohol policy, still parietals and still a low-tolerance for drug abuse. But the procedures and tone underwent revisions.

It had been several years since the Office of Residence Life had undergone an intensive review, and with new leadership in place, the time was right. For two-and-a-half years a group of staff, administrators, students and faculty assessed the ResLife process and how students were interacting with the office, hall staffs, Notre Dame Security Police (NDSP) and local law enforcement. They looked at the policies of 17 other institutions and analyzed best practices in the field. And they asked students, alumni and administrators what the ideal disciplinary process would look like and how it could better serve students and the ND community.

“We believe here at ND, we’re part of a community. That means we care for one another and we have standards for how we live, study, pray, work together,” Erin Hoffmann Harding ’97, vice president for Student Affairs, says. “The objective of this process is if and when something might go awry, one way or the other, that we can help a student learn and make a better decision the next time and we can keep our community safe and flourishing.”

In an attempt to educate not only the minds but also the hearts of students, Hoffmann Harding says, the mission of the new office will focus on education, formation and community.

Formation begins at home

Ryan Willerton is the director of the new Office of Community Standards, which resides within the division of Student Affairs. He says one of the biggest changes that came out of the assessment is the strengthened collaboration between the rectors and his office. Under the new system, most first-time incidents will now be handled by the rector, or, for off-campus students, a Student Affairs administrator.

Exceptions will be made for more severe crimes including sexual assault, drug abuse, DUI and theft, which will go straight to Community Standards.

“Your first conversation needs to be with someone who knows you best,” Willerton says. “The rector probably knows you better than one of the staff in our office. If we look at Catholic social teaching, we like to make an analogy to subsidiarity, not necessarily handling things at the lowest level possible but having [issues] addressed by someone who knows the student and can have a productive conversation.”

Administrators hope rectors can modify a student’s behavior in a pastoral way before it worsens. While some rectors were already handling many cases in-house, others had chosen to relinquish most discipline to ResLife. That discrepancy frustrated and confused students. It’s important, Hoffmann Harding says, for each rector and each residence hall community to be unique, but the processes on campus needed to be streamlined so expectations and outcomes were uniform, no matter where students you lived.

The assessment group also found inconsistency with how students were entering the disciplinary system. An underage student found drinking in their residence hall may have been handled quietly in-house by the hall staff. Whereas another underage student found drinking by NDSP or local law enforcement would automatically be referred to ResLife. The same crime warranted drastically different results and didn’t permit much room for developmental conversation before disciplinary action was taken. In the new system, though, regardless of where a student gets in trouble, the rector will speak to them first.

Putting the first offense in the hands of the rector also helps remove some of the fear factor. Brian Coughlin ’95, associate vice president for Student Development and a member of the assessment group, says students revealed they were terrified of being sent to ResLife. He says shifting that mentality has been one of the largest changes to come out of the process.

“There is no boogey man in an administrative office somewhere who is going to hammer you if you step out of line,” he says. “We understand that students are going to make some bad choices every once in a while. The conversations that the rectors are having and Ryan’s office are having are designed to help those students not make the same bad decision again.”

Facing the consequences

Before, most disciplinary cases that went to ResLife — whether it was a parietals violation or public intoxication or vandalism — often came out with similar punishments: a choice of 20 hours of community service or a $200 fine. But in evaluating the state of the department and from discussions with students and hall staffs, the assessment group wondered whether and what students were learning from this one-size-fits-all approach. For affluent students, a fine didn’t necessarily modify behavior. And even though the majority of students took advantage of community service, that wasn’t without problems. Many Notre Dame students, notes Willerton, participate in service, “so all they were doing was just asking for a letter to verify what they were already doing.” Those students weren’t completing anything additional to work off the sentence, so the consequence didn’t force them to reflect on their behavior.

Now, fines and community service are off the table and will be replaced by outcomes, previously called sanctions, that fit the individual and the offense. There are general suggestions, like workshops, alcohol counseling, written assignments or formal apologies, but the rectors are encouraged to implement ideas tailored to the student’s misbehavior.

Illustration by Dan Page

Sister Mary Jane Hahner, CSFN, the rector of Pasquerilla West, says, “We’re trying to come to be more pastoral and to have them assume personal responsibility so that it’s a learning [experience].” Hahner gives some examples: If a young woman is sick in the bathroom on a Friday night and leaves a mess, she will spend the next several Saturday mornings cleaning all the bathrooms with the housekeepers. If a resident is caught repeatedly drunk, she could be asked to watch a film that discusses issues like alcoholism, such as 28 Days, and write a reflection paper about what she learned. The student will likely also be asked to attend alcohol counseling through the new Center for Student Health Promotion and Well-Being.

Willerton adds there are outcomes for out-of-dorm infractions, too. Students found intoxicated while tailgating or in the football stadium might, for instance, now be asked to check in with the public safety office each week before the game. This helps ensure that they’re not again consuming alcohol before kickoff.

Such procedures, Willerton says, are meant to encourage students to reconsider their conduct and to hold them accountable, but no one can force them to behave better.

“It’s up to the student to change their decisions,” he says. “We’ll give them the resources, the tools and the advice and guidance, but at the end of the day it’s up to them.”

Impermanent records

In the multiyear assessment that preceded the change, one of the biggest and most surprising concerns voiced by students was the records-reporting policy, says Coughlin. Some students suspected that infractions like drinking on campus and parietals violations were the reason they were denied entrance into medical school, law school and graduate school, or lost employment opportunities. The problem wasn’t just that they were being tattled on, it was that they were being held to different rules than students from other schools with whom they were competing for slots. Students said they felt it was unfair to have such Notre Dame-specific rules reported externally.

“I believe Notre Dame really should have high standards and we should be proud of that,” says Hoffmann Harding. “People expect more of ND graduates, but we want to be sure we’re being fair to our students and their learning process throughout the way.”

Hearing about students’ anxiety over this issue, the assessment group reviewed the policies of other universities, including Northwestern, Duke, Princeton and Boston College, to create a hybrid records-reporting model that was implemented here last fall.

“Our policy now reads: unless you’ve been put on disciplinary probation, have been separated from the University temporarily or permanently, we don’t share any information,” Coughlin says. “All these things where you’re having a conversation with your rector or with Community Standards, we’re not going to tell anyone about because we still believe that is part of the educational, formative process.

“I think that’s really helped students feel a little more comfortable about the process, knowing that no one’s out to get you.” The point of the changes, he adds, is to help students make better decisions in the near term and not focus on whether reports are going to affect post-graduate choices.

Coughlin says he has seen student anxiety over these records increase dramatically in recent years. He believes it’s a result of the growing number of students pursuing professional degrees. Since Notre Dame is no longer the last stop on their academic journey, many students are concerned about keeping their records clean, something once a problem for high school students.

The new records-reporting policy is designed to prevent one minor mistake a student makes in college from haunting them the rest of their lives, though students are encouraged to be honest with future employers or educational institutions. But a student who decides he does want to share the entirety of his file can sign a waiver so it can be released. This new system also applies retroactively to alumni; unless they were on disciplinary probation or were dismissed from the University, their files can also remain private.

The policy change also means files will include a record of each conversation students have with their rector. Though the rectors handle first cases of impropriety, they still must document the conversation and send it to Community Standards. These reports create a tracking process that was missing from the old system.

Coughlin, a former rector of Carroll Hall, explains that when Father Jim Lewis, O.Carm, took over in Carroll, the priest had no way of knowing which students had spoken with Coughlin once and which students had been in his office four or five times. The ResLife system failed to provide context for incoming rectors, Coughlin says.

Some rectors are unhappy with the amount of paperwork the reports are creating and worry that the administrative part will overtake the pastoral one. Some are concerned their role is changing for the negative. But others are more positive, insisting it prevents students from falling through the cracks, especially in the larger dorms.

Hahner says, “It keeps good track of who was in there, how many times and when, where and why.”

As before, the Office of Community Standards handles more severe cases. If a student’s behavior is repetitive or escalating in nature, he or she will be asked to attend a conference, or, in cases that could result in dismissal from the University, a hearing. Along with Community Standards staff, the rector and two “University Conduct Officers” will be present. These new officers are individuals who work elsewhere in Student Affairs — such as in Student Activities, the Gender Relations Center or Multicultural Student Programs and Services — and who can provide a different outlook and opinion in dealing with student conduct. Their participation also guarantees that students don’t see the same few faces doling out punishments.

Another addition to conferences and hearings allows students to bring a support person. That individual, who won’t have any official duties or be able to speak on behalf of the student, can be any student, faculty or staff member, excluding parents or attorneys.

As a balancing factor, Community Standards staff members are now asked to serve as advisers to a major student organization, like, in Willerton’s case, the Freshman Class Council, so they can interact with students outside of a disciplinary setting.

Hold the toast

While the Office of Community Standards has received predominantly favorable remarks from students so far, staff members are not celebrating success quite yet. The true success rate, they say, will be determined by recidivism. It will be a few years until they can learn whether the system is decreasing the number of repeat offenders. Willerton says there are goals for students long-term as well. He hopes what they learn through the process dissuades dangerous or unprofessional behavior after graduation, too.

The rectors also are holding off judgment. While they’re glad students are reflecting on how certain actions affect their neighbors and the community, they’re not yet sure if the new system will better deter activities like binge drinking, which they say is increasingly problematic on campus.

The new office is still in its infancy, and for the next year the group will continue to review and make tweaks. This summer, the staff spent time looking at how they react to sexual misconduct and sexual violence on campus, and discussing ways to create more transparency about the department’s processes.

The transparency, they hope, will shed light on any remaining dark corners, making sure no ghosts persist.

Tara Hunt is an associate editor of this magazine.