Making Swarthmore’s Injustice System More Transparent

Have you ever fully read the student handbook? Have you ever even looked at the student handbook? The answer too often for both questions seems to be a resounding no. Considering it’s a guideline regarding all of the college’s official policies, you would expect students to have a general understanding of the handbook. Yet, according to the survey data we’ve collected to determine how much students knew about student conduct and its terms and policies, nearly half of the students responded that they had not read a single word from the student handbook. Although our survey was a rough representation of the campus, we do believe that the trends in our survey can likely be found in the larger student body. The lack of awareness of the student conduct policies is a common theme amongst the Swarthmore students unless you were forced to undergo the process firsthand. We believe that all students here at Swarthmore should be exposed to how the student misconduct process is run, and not only when it becomes an issue a student faces during their time here. Understanding Swarthmore’s official student conduct policies ensures that students are able to advocate for themselves and that the stresses and harms of the misconduct process associated with a lack of transparency are minimized..

As part of the Math and Social Justice course, we were assigned to tackle a social justice issue that we believed we could implement change through the use of mathematics. We thought, what better way to approach this project than to look inwards by bringing the Swarthmore justice system to the forefront? The Swarthmore student misconduct process has been a largely undocumented and unacknowledged aspect of the college; many students go through their four years without even so much as hearing about the procedure. Students who do go through the process are left traumatized while their peers are clueless about what they had to endure. We believe that the student misconduct process deserves a bigger spotlight so that students can fully understand exactly the justice system that we are subjected to.

In order to address this issue, we believe we need to increase transparency regarding the process, revise the need to permanently record non-criminal student misconduct, and bring back the Student Conduct Annual Reports that had stopped being published after the 2016-17 school year. So we created an anonymous survey to gauge how aware students are of the student misconduct procedure and met with Deans Nathan Miller and Michelle Ray in order to identify what caused the Student Conduct Annual Reports to be discontinued. 

We found in our survey that some students did not know the most fundamental terms used in these student misconduct reports. According to the student conduct annual report, a disciplinary case is defined as “an individual allegation against a student accused of a possible violation of the student code of conduct (including those addressed through the Alcohol and Other Drug Amnesty Policy).” One student can have multiple disciplinary cases from the same incident as it would be recorded as different violations. Sanctions are essentially punishments, the college’s way of holding students accountable for their actions. Sanctions range from warnings and go all the way up to expulsion. The type of sanction dealt out depends on the severity of an allegation. For example, an underage-alcohol consumption allegation could result in a warning that will not stay on a student’s permanent record. Plagiarism or collaborating with another student, however, could lead to probation or suspension. Probation, suspension, and expulsion sanctions result in a loss of good standing, meaning that a student cannot hold a Resident Peer Leadership role for however long the sanction lasts. Minor misconduct cases are typically handled by the Senior Associate Dean of Student Life (Nathan Miller) and the maximum sanction one can receive is probation. Major misconduct cases are typically overseen by the College Judiciary Committee (CJC), a five-member committee comprised of two students, two faculty, and one staff member. 

The Student Conduct Annual Report was a report established by Dean Miller when he first joined Swarthmore in 2013. This report was created each summer to summarize the previous school year’s student conduct cases and sanctions and released on the official Swarthmore website for anyone to access. However, the last report to be published was for the 2016-2017 school year. Why? In a meeting we had with Dean Miller, he revealed that there seemed a general disinterest in his annual reports from the Swarthmore community, making it less of a priority to collect this data and publish them online. When he held meetings to discuss the release of these reports, he claimed that no one had shown up for the last two years. In acknowledgment of this issue, we felt that generating awareness about the process would thereby generate interest as well, since there exist many students who are not even aware that these reports existed in the first place. 

To examine exactly how much the Swarthmore community knew about the misconduct process, we created a survey titled “Investigation into Swarthmore’s Justice System.” After posting the survey information across the campus buildings and spreading the word through the Swarthmore Facebook group, we garnered 91 responses encompassing responses from all four class years. Part of our survey included quiz-like questions where we wanted to see how accurate student knowledge of student misconduct was. We found that 46.2% of students had never read the student handbook at all, making the rest of the responses unsurprising. When asked which sanctions result in a loss of good standing (probation, suspension, and expulsion), approximately 30% responded with a reprimand and 9% answered a warning. We asked how many disciplinary cases happen each year and had a wide range of responses from 2 all the way to 1600. About 77% of respondents estimated 50 or fewer disciplinary cases occur yearly. Unfortunately, we were not able to secure the most updated number of cases for the previous school year, but Dean Miller did send us data showing that 222 disciplinary cases occurred in the 2017-2018 school year — four times the estimate that most students held. That individual year is not necessarily the best representation of the number of cases as it fluctuates, but in every report that has been published, the number of cases has exceeded 100. 

Some particularly revealing anonymous comments regarding the student conduct process included: “Everything I filled out was a guess,” “I’m just gonna say I don’t know anything about it,” “Don’t understand it at all,” and “I don’t know how it works, how does it work?” Of the key responses we received, the 46.2% of students who had not read the student handbook at all and the failure for most students to estimate near the range of how many disciplinary cases occurred at Swarthmore seemed to underscore our belief about the awareness or lack thereof regarding these policies and their outcomes. The survey confirmed our belief that students should be provided with more effective measures to inform them of their rights and the misconduct procedure that they could be subjected to here at Swarthmore.

While this was a project we were all committed to pursuing, it was difficult to create a timeline where we could devote the appropriate time and effort. Given the number of responses we received through our survey, we had difficulty singling out certain responses to highlight in our report for both this article and our group project. We also had various scheduling conflicts that repeatedly slowed down the progress of our task. Scheduling meetings with Deans Miller and Ray was incredibly difficult to do. Although they are the major players in student conduct, they also oversee many other facets of student life, making it difficult to find time in their consistently busy schedules. Additionally, Dean Miller was hesitant to meet with our group before meeting with our professor to fully understand our project’s purpose. With a delay in meeting, we struggled to discuss and incorporate everything we wished to before our results were due. But possibly the biggest obstacle to achieving our goals was the fact that we knew this project would have to come to an end by this semester. We realize that all our progress would only be band-aid solutions if a consistent interest in pushing for greater transparency and general awareness of the student conduct process was not maintained. We hope that this article as well as our talk with Dean Miller and Dean Ray would ignite a spark within the Swarthmore community to want to inform all students on campus about the Swarthmore justice system, a desire that persists well after this semester comes to its conclusion.  

In an additional meeting with Dean Miller and Dean Ray, we brought up our own ideas for how to educate incoming students on the student conduct process so they are not potentially thrust into a stressful situation without any background knowledge. However, it was unclear whether he would take our ideas further and present them to his colleagues. We offered up two ideas: introduce the topic of student conduct during freshman orientation, and create a student job on JobX that would allow students to help create annual conduct reports. Our main concern is that students only learn about the student conduct process once they are already going through the process and must learn all this new information during a stressful period. Dean Ray explained that those behind student conduct are very open to feedback and want to modify the process as needed based on what students have to say. We proposed ideas that would not require a student to go through the harms of the student conduct process before giving feedback. If students know about the process ahead of time and understand the basic terms of sanction, good standing, disciplinary case, and more, then they can offer input before being put into such a situation.

Through this project, we wished to raise awareness of the Swarthmore Justice system for students to understand their rights regardless of if they had been involved in the student misconduct process. We were able to put a number to how uneducated the student body was regarding the student handbook and discover the reasoning behind the discontinuation of the Student Conduct Annual Reports. Both Dean Miller and Dean Ray continually expressed their openness to working with students on increasing transparency and demystifying the student conduct process. They are open to ideas, so this will be an ongoing process to create more transparency and put students’ mental well-being first. We urge students to speak up about this process so that it can feel less like a system of policing and punishment and more of a non-harmful system of growth and learning. We hope that with a better understanding of student conduct processes here at Swarthmore, students will be able to support themselves and their peers who may one day be involved in a case.

Remy Kanegene ’24 was a member of this group project team. He did not contribute to the writing nor editing of this piece. 

1 Comment

  1. i wonder if nathan miller was hesitant to meet because he thought you were going to ask him about his pattern of allowing invasive victim-blaming questions in title ix hearings, or about his pattern of failing to punish rapists, or about his history of failing to enforce any of the rules in the student handbook in the fraternities back when they were still on campus, or his failure to communicate or commit to clear timelines for adjudication processes. lol.

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