Campus conduct system used to educate students

Cindy Von Quednow

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Unlike a governmental criminal justice system, the judicial component of the disciplinary process at CSUN is more educational that punitive.

“The purpose of the conduct system, in part, is to get the student to understand and to explore why they made that (wrong) choice, and to get them to understand the consequence of that choice that they made, with the goal of trying to create within them the motivation to make the right decision in the future,” said William Watkins, associate vice president for student affairs and dean of students.

Issues of misconduct involve three separate entities. Watkins handles violations of the student conduct code that take place on campus. Samuel Lingrosso, coordinator of housing judicial services and campus conduct officer, manages mostly issues that occur within the student housing department. State, local and federal violations that occur on campus go to the public safety department, headed by Police Chief Anne Glavin.

While matters might overlap into subsequent fields, cases are filed and dealt with separately.

“The public safety department’s processes are very different from ours…Ours is an administrative process that is, at its core, focused on student education and development and trying to deal with correcting behavior verses punishing behavior.”

The three work together to make sure matters are referred to and filed in the correct office.

All student records are confidential and protected by the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.

Violations, as illustrated by the student conduct code in the California Code of Regulations, include different forms of academic dishonesty, which Watkins said is the majority of cases he hears, issues dealing with drugs or alcohol, abusive or threatening behavior, theft, and damage or misuse of property.

As the appointed chief conduct officer of the university, Watkins deals with issues of student misconduct and discipline. Once a case is on his desk, via a complaint or an arrest file, the student in question meets with Watkins to discuss the incident. A settlement agreement that determines future expectations and an appropriate sanction are usually made during a one-on-one conference with Watkins. But if the issue is not resolved, a formal hearing is set up.

During a hearing, the student in question can present evidence, have witnesses testify on his or her behalf and can be represented by an individual or advisor that is not an attorney. Hearing officers who have been appointed by University President Jolene Koester make deliberations and recommendations, and she makes the final decision.

Watkins said that sanctions could range from something as informal as a small meeting with him to more serious warnings and consequences. The three most severe sanctions are disciplinary probation, suspension and expulsion.

Watkins assures that sanctions are determined based on the severity of the case and are used more as a means to educate the student in question and to prevent a similar incident in the future.

“We believe that accountability for mature adults is an appropriate response to misconduct and that by being accountable for things we develop deeper insight into what we need to do and we are more motivated to avoid those kinds of problems in the future,” said Watkins.

He said the conduct system could also be a support system for students to seek out services that can help them overcome certain behavioral or educational issues. Counseling though the university counseling services is also encouraged, and sometimes students are required to go in for assessment, said Watkins.

Although similar matters of misconduct occur in student housing and are addressed from the developmental standpoint, Watkins said the two departments are different because they are separate settings.

“Their objective is not to enforce the university student conduct code. Their goal is to try to correct the difficulties and challenges so that the student can be a productive or at least not a problematic resident in that kind of environment,” said Watkins.

Although their processes are separate, Watkins works closely with the housing system through Lingrosso, whose housing judicial role was recently created as a connecting factor between campus and housing matters.

Even though his office is on campus, Lingrosso, who has been at CSUN since last May, said he also works out of the dormitories.

“I also have a physical presence here in housing, so I can be a resource and keep a close relationship with students,” Lingrosso said.

This is demonstrated through the judicial system that is practiced within student housing, which also handles issues educationally.

“We operate our office based on due process and fairness. No student is assumed guilty or at fault until the process takes due course,” said Lingrosso. “We view the housing area as a classroom where we want students to learn from their behavior.”

Lingrosso said incident violations vary and can include anything from disobeying quiet hours to physical altercations that can involve non-residents. Once an incident is reported to Lingrosso, the students involved meet with a hearing officer, usually one of the five community directors of student housing, to discuss the incident and a sanction is issued. These range from a warning to contract cancellation, which is the most severe. If a student is dissatisfied with the outcome, he or she can request an appeal, during which Lingrosso takes a second look at the case.

“If a decision is disagreeable, there is room to talk,” said Lingrosso. “It’s not like a court room setting when the final decision is made when the judge slams the gavel.”

Most cases are determined during the initial meeting with a hearing officer, which is more of a conversation than a formal conference, said Erica Lovano, one of the community directors who handles judicial matters in her corresponding dormitory buildings.

Lovano said that hearing officers use these “developmental conversations” to determine an appropriate sanction.

“Our goal is to provide a developmental and educational experience for that student…We want to do something that is going to challenge that student to grow to a new level, personally as well as in their interpersonal relationships,” Lovano said.

Although hearing officers try to build a friendly relationship with a student, they can take on the authoritative role and are not biased, said Lovano.

“We take the individuals circumstance into account as much as we can, (but) there are certain things that we want to hold students accountable for because they affect our community. Sometimes even a student’s personal circumstance isn’t enough to outweigh the larger communities,” said Lovano. “Evidence is evidence and we have to hold you accountable if our staff members documented a certain circumstance.”

Watkins and Lingrosso stressed the importance of applying the judicial system in a way that is fair and just.

“Students always have a right to be heard; that is the whole purpose of the system we live in,” said Lingrosso.

Lovano said that the effectiveness of the judicial process is the ability to break the typical stereotype of student conduct as being intimidating and unfair.

“For a lot of students that we work with, there’s a fear of authority or a fear of a very formal process and for us to be able to break down some of that fear is very valuable,” Lovano said.

“A lot of students don’t know who we are until they come in for a judicial meeting, and that’s unfortunate to me because I don’t want them to see us as the authority. . . When they come in, I can demystify that, I can challenge that for them, and I can show them that I’m not a scary person,” Lovano said.

The campus conduct system is accessible to students. Information on the rules and regulations of the campus and housing facilities, as well as information on how to file a
complaint or incident report is available online through the CSUN Division of Student Affairs.