Updated Student Handbook Expands “Disorderly Conduct” Definition and Clarifies Grounds for Appeals

The Dean’s office released the revised Student Handbook for the 2019-2020 school year on Sept. 3. Major changes from the 2018-2019 Student Handbook include the addition of a definition of “stalking”, expanded definitions of “bullying” and “disorderly conduct”, a formal process for hosting a “Bring Your Own” event, an updated “hazing” policy, and clarification of policy relating to appeals and parental notification. 

The Handbook includes the community expectations for students, detailing policies and procedures designed to, as stated in the Introduction section, “establish a healthy and inclusive college community.”  Changes to the Handbook are made annually after extensive review by a team of students and faculty. 

Nathan Miller, senior associate dean of student life, described the revision process as thorough and involving input from both staff and students.

“Each department/resource listed in the Student Handbook is asked to review and update their given section each year. Additionally, I and members of my staff meet with and collect feedback from various stakeholders (CJC committee members, OSE staff, RAs, SwatTeam members, etc.) throughout the year. The college also reviews if there are state or federal regulations that are required to be updated,” wrote Miller in an email to The Phoenix.

Some of the updates are cause for concern among student groups on campus, namely Organizing for Survivors. 

O4S is especially concerned about the change made to the “Appeals” section, particularly as it relates to Title IX appeals. The college changed the wording of what qualifies as grounds for an appeal to “procedural error(s) that had a material impact on the outcome”; formally stated as ‘procedural error(s) that had a material impact on the fairness of the hearing’.” 

When asked about the significance of the change, Miller believed that the revision is keeping with the practices of the college.

 “The college’s entire student conduct process is grounded in fundamental fairness … [and] is intended to determine if a student has violated college policy. The grounds for appeal are reviewed with this objective in mind, and key to the consideration of the procedural error ground has consistently been whether the aggrieved error would have materially impacted the outcome of the process. This revision was made to bring the text in line with practice,” wrote Miller.

Bindu Jayne, director of Title IX, said that the change was made to reduce ambiguity within the policy. 

“The revision has not narrowed the bases for appeals or changed the threshold, but rather the intention was to clarify how appeals are reviewed. Tying the procedural error to the outcome is a more objective measure than tying the error to the more subjective measure of the fairness of the adjudication.  The hope is that this is a more tangible measure to hold students to — it’s more ambiguous to assert that the ‘fairness of the adjudication’ was affected than it is to say that the outcome would have been different if this error had been corrected. This change in language clarifies how appeals are reviewed,” she said.

Jayne also said that the change better assigns responsibility for procedural errors. 

“Another rationale for making this change concerns who should be responsible for procedural errors.  An adjudication is focused on determining whether or not a student is or is not responsible for a policy violation.  Therefore, if a procedural error affects the outcome of whether or not a student is found responsible, it should obviously be eligible for an appeal.  However, if there is a procedural error that wouldn’t have affected the outcome (that is, whether or not someone was found responsible), then an appeal may not be the right venue to assess or address the error.  Such errors could be discussed with college administrators to inform procedures, policies, or training,” she said.

 O4S feels this change is a step backwards, specifically for Title IX cases. Amal Haddad ’22, speaking on behalf of O4S, expressed concern about administration having too much power in determining appeals.

“Though of course this applies to perpetrators as well as reporters, it is [the school’s prerogative] to determine if a procedural error ‘had a material impact on the outcome’ and how they apply this rule in practice.”

Haddad mentioned that this revision is particularly problematic due to concerns over past  Swarthmore Title IX cases.

“As Swarthmore has a documented and consistent history of breaking its own rules in Title IX adjudications with regards to time limits, questioning, etc, we fear that this update even further erodes accountability for mishandling of Title IX cases because the school can arbitrarily claim that a rule violation or mishandling didn’t impact the outcome and avoid responsibility for victimizing survivors,” said Haddad.

Another change worrying O4S is the expansion of the definition of “disorderly conduct” to include “any other action(s) that result in the unreasonable interference with the learning/working environment or the rights of others.” 

 Haddad believes the updated definition is too broad and gives the administration too much power. 

“The scope of the update is incredibly broad (“any other actions”) and leaves it entirely up to the school’s digression to determine what is “disorderly conduct”, which is a deliberate tactic to discourage and punish protest.” 

Miller addressed the implications of the expanded definition, expressing the college’s commitment to supporting students’ ability to peacefully protest as long as the protest does not impinge on the rights of other members of the community. 

“The college has a long and demonstrated history of fully supporting students’ ability to peaceful protest. Nothing about that has changed; the update to the disorderly conduct policy is in no way intended to limit students’ ability to protest peacefully. In fact, the policy reaffirms students’ right to express their views in this way, stating “Students at Swarthmore College have the right to express their views, feelings, and beliefs inside and outside the classroom and to support causes publicly, including by demonstrations and other means. At the same time, that expression should not impinge on the rights of other members of the community. The policy was updated to underscore that students, faculty, and staff have the right to live, work, and learn in an environment that is free of unreasonable interference,” he said. 

In addition to changes concerning appeals and disorderly conduct, updates were made to the college’s Alcohol Related Event and Bring Your Own policy. The deadline to submit an A.R.E. Events Alcohol Permit was updated to 12:00 p.m. on the Wednesday prior to an event occurring that week; the former deadline was 5:00 p.m. on Wednesday.  

The email Miller sent to students about the Handbook update also stated that there is now a formal policy for hosting a social event with alcohol that is B.Y.O. However, there is no such change in the copy of the Handbook sent to students—this year’s policy, detailing the amount of alcohol allowed to be brought in per attendee, exists in last year’s Handbook as well. Miller stated that the policy listed in last year’s Handbook was there on a trial basis and is now a permanent policy after being well-received by students.

The inclusion of a stalking definition is intended to further protect students in situations that fall outside the college’s “Sexual Assault and Harassment” policy.

 “The college did not have a policy that captured stalking behavior outside of the Sexual Assault and Harassment policy”, wrote Miller. The newly added stalking definition reflects Pennsylvania’s legal definition of stalking. 

Pennsylavnia’s laws and legal definitions are also reflected in the new “Hazing” section. The section was updated to be in compliance with the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania’s Timothy J. Piazza Anti-Hazing Law, Act 80 of 2018, a law named after Penn State student and Beta Theta Pi pledge Timothy Piazza who died in February 2017 as a result of hazing. The law establishes stricter punishments for hazing, classifies new types of hazing, and requires institutions of higher education to publish anti-hazing policies and publicly report hazing violations.

This addition was made in January 2019 but still mentioned by Miller as an update to the Handbook.

The college expects students to know and follow the new policies, and the revised student Handbook is available on the Swarthmore website.

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