The university revised the Code of Student Conduct this fall in order to more thoroughly define harassment, hazing and bullying, especially regarding cyberbullying and online harassment.
The previous version of the code defined harassment as “any intentional or persistent act(s) deemed intimidating, hostile, coercive or offensive,” which lacked both a true formal definition and a specific definition concerning online conduct.
The updated code first defines harassment as “any severe, pervasive or persistent act or conduct, whether physical, electronic or verbal, that can be reasonably expected to inflict fear, to intimidate, to incite violence or to force someone to do something against his/her will or self-interest.” It then elaborates on what constitutes harassment, including cyberbullying.
Vice President for Student Affairs Todd Olson said that the policy demonstrates the administration’s dedication to each student’s well-being.
“These changes to our policies reflect our commitment to ensuring a civil and respectful campus community,” Olson wrote in an email. “Harassment, hazing and bullying (cyber or otherwise) are all acts that demean others, and we want to be clear about how seriously we take these issues.”
Haley Maness (NHS ’15), a recent victim of cyberbullying who addressed the issue with the Office of Student Conduct, said that the university was responsive to her case.
“They were initially very shocked by it,” she said. “So I think they take it a little more seriously. But it was disappointing because there were limited things that they could do. They made sure that I was OK and I was safe, but there was nothing they could really do to move forward with it. … I think they looked at it and said, ‘This is actually impacting people.’”
Maness received a death threat online last year following posts on the Georgetown Confessions Facebook page, but she was encouraged by the university’s quick reaction.
“I was lucky that a lot of the administrators took it very seriously, but a lot of my fellow students were like, ‘That person didn’t mean it,’ ‘It was just a joke’ or ‘You shouldn’t take it that seriously.’ And that was difficult because it was something that really scared me and felt really traumatic to me,” Maness said.
Georgetown University Student Association President Trevor Tezel (SFS ’15) said that he is optimistic about the new policy.
“This will hopefully give the university more tools to root out and identify cyberbullying where it occurs. I hope it comes with additional resources for students who find themselves the victims of cyberbullying,” Tezel said.
Tezel also noted the foresight in updating the hazing policy with the recent growth of on-campus Greek life.
“When it comes to hazing, it will be interesting to see how the university can enforce the new policy because much of this activity takes place off campus and outside the auspices of the university,” Tezel said. “I don’t think it affects Georgetown like it does other schools. With that said, it’s something we have to be constantly aware of, especially with the increase in Greek life on campus in recent years. While Georgetown Greek life has an excellent track record, we have to constantly be vigilant.”
In late spring, Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) reintroduced the Tyler Clementi Higher Education Anti-Harassment Act, which is currently making its way through a Senate committee and would require colleges and universities that are receiving federal funds to define anti-harassment policies and to include cyberbullying in those policies.
“I also think that it’s really important that the university is putting it into their policy because things online are legally admissible in court. And so if it’s something that’s admissible in court, it’s something that’s so strictly on the record,” Maness said.
Maness said that she thinks the university’s new policy could change how students view cyberbullying.
“It’s a lot easier for people to do to people online because they’re not strictly talking to that person face-to-face,” Maness said. “And so I think that’s why it’s more frequent. If the university starts taking it more seriously, then people will be more responsible with their actions and with their words. The hard thing is that it’s going to be difficult for some students to come forward and say that.”