As young adults and college students, we make mistakes ranging from drug use to excessive drinking to harassment. Reducing the frequency of students’ mistakes is the priority of any university — and for good reason.
The Georgetown University Office of Student Conduct recognizes “when order is absent or disrupted, not only are individuals harmed, but the community suffers too.”
This order the OSC describes is not based on a philosophy of control or punitive measures. Instead, this communal arrangement is rooted in the vision of a campus environment “known for love of truth, active care and concern for the common good.” The Student Advocacy Office, which helps students navigate Georgetown University’s disciplinary system, however, has observed a widening divide between the OSC’s vision and its practice.
Therefore, as chair of SAO’s Policy Committee, I am calling on Georgetown to adopt restorative justice methods that will augment the Code of Student Conduct with a more progressive, compassionate and sustainable approach to the adjudication process and sanctioning guidelines.
I believe restorative justice methods could fundamentally change the way we respond to student misconduct and repair harmed community relationships. Restorative justice is based on the idea that reparation of harm and reconciliation of conflict can strengthen and empower a community; it goes beyond punitive sanctions. In this approach, the harmed parties and people who caused harm collaborate to find resolution, rebuild trust, provide social support and develop understanding. Fortunately, existing methods of sanctioning, such as an apology letter and an educational project, are an important part of what I am advocating for.
The ways the OSC addresses disciplinary issues not only impact Georgetown’s reputation as an institution that emphasizes cura personalis, meaning “care of the whole person,” but also determine the growth and development of our campus community.
The current sanctioning model is purportedly designed to achieve four goals: reestablish order, repair harm, restore good standing and reflect on harmful actions. At first glance, these goals seem to align with the aspiration of a vibrant, healthy campus with a strong moral foundation. A closer look, however, reveals how current guidelines fail to effectively build this kind of community.
Once a student is reported for a violation, they are assigned to meet with a conduct officer or, in severe cases, a closed-door hearing. After submitting a written statement and offering verbal testimony, the student is likely to be found responsible and sanctioned based on the degree and recurrence of the violation.
The student’s disciplinary sanctions are designed to achieve the four aforementioned goals. To reestablish order and repair harm, the student may receive housing or disciplinary probation, suspension or dismissal. To restore good standing, the student may be forced to pay a fine or restitution fee upward of $50. And to reflect on harmful actions, the student may complete work sanction hours, an apology letter and/or an educational project.
I believe this disciplinary model cannot fulfill Georgetown’s principle of “care of the whole person,” unless the word person refers to just the harmed parties who obviously deserve justice. But both the harmed parties and the offenders deserve the chance to grow spiritually and morally.
Currently, the sanctioning guidelines heavily emphasize punitive measures, such as disciplinary probation, fines and work sanction hours or supervised labor. Despite the fact that fines and work sanction hours are not being used during the COVID-19 pandemic, they were used throughout the 2018-19 school year. However, harsh punishments have not been proven to prevent recidivism. Knowing college students are imperfect people, they should be afforded the opportunity to grow and learn from their mistakes rather than simply punished. This opportunity can only be found in the compassionate and sustainable approach of restorative justice.
In addition, the current conduct model falls short of building and sustaining a healthy community because it almost exclusively focuses on procedural pathways that simply identify the perpetrator, the code violation and the appropriate sanction. The harmed party and offender do not have the chance to extensively interact and participate in mediation. A system that is not people-focused cannot repair harmed relations and build a community based on trust and morality.
So, here’s what a conduct model based on restorative justice actually looks like.
Instead of an administrative action meeting or hearing, both the student and the harmed party would meet with a restorative justice board. During this proceeding, a standing board of students, faculty and staff would facilitate an open and honest dialogue between the two parties. After the discussion, the student and the harmed party — not a conduct officer or a hearing panel — would decide together on actionable steps to repair the harm. The final resolution could be an apology letter and an educational project.
It is important to note that harmed parties are invited but not needed for the board to proceed. When a harmed party declines to participate in mediation, the board will represent their perspective through impact statements. Nevertheless, even without both parties present, the board will carefully assign sanctions based on the restorative justice goals of repairing harm and rebuilding trust.
Other universities operate under a similar model: The University of San Diego, James Madison University and Liberty University, just to name a few, have all implemented forms of restorative justice boards in their student conduct deliberations.
I do not recommend altogether eliminating sanctions, which can deter rule-breaking to a certain extent. And admittedly, the restorative justice model does present challenges, like the requirement of cooperation and honesty for both parties. The model may not apply to every conduct case. Nevertheless, Georgetown must look beyond the current student conduct model and seriously consider restorative justice as an alternative, especially if we desire to build a community based on the shared values of trust, integrity and mutual respect.
The Policy Committee and I have had substantive discussions with the OSC on these matters and look forward to working with the office to help all students develop socially, spiritually and morally.
Curtis Yun is a sophomore in the College. Reach out to the Student Advocacy Office here.
The following comment is from a university spokesperson in response to this Viewpoint: “An open group of students, staff, and faculty has been meeting regularly since this summer to learn together about Restorative and Transformative Justice and explore ways that these practices can be meaningfully introduced to the Georgetown community and thoughtfully integrated into processes within Title IX and Student Conduct and throughout the University.”