Out of Sight, Out of Mind–Why Disciplinary Suspension is Not Educational
I do a lot of outreach to student life administrators at colleges and national organizations to let them know about our services for individuals and groups. Occasionally I’ll get a response from one that aggressively claims that our job is to “stop students from having any accountability” and thus “contrary to the “education” of a judicial system.” There are a lot of problems with this accusation, but the biggest one is that the severity of a sanction is not inherently related to the educational merit. If the purpose of a campus judicial system is primarily to educate the person or organization going through the process, then temporarily pulling that student out of the environment where the people most capable of educating him are located makes no sense.
Let’s say Tim Student plagiarizes a paper and gets caught. One of two things is true-either Tim is a completely dishonest person who cheats repeatedly or Tim demonstrated weakness and made a really bad decision. If Tim is a habitual cheater, sending him home for a semester or a year might make him reassess whether cheating is worth the risk, but it will not teach him that it is wrong. It may teach him that the price of getting caught is not worth the benefit of cheating which may be a deterrent, but it is not educational. It’s the judicial equivalent of shocking the mouse if he hits the wrong button. There will be some point where a situation has a benefit that is worth the cost, and Tim will absolutely cheat again. If, however, Tim is like most of us and makes occasional bad decisions, then suspending him teaches him nothing. It does not address the issues that lead to the decision to plagiarize and it separates him from the support resources he would need to develop the tools that will allow him to maintain his integrity in the future. Tim staying on campus allows the school, and specifically the student support professionals, to do actual development work with him.
I should point out that there is also value in sanctioning to protect the students who are doing the right thing. In other words, if someone cheats he should be sanctioned strongly enough that the majority that does not cheat feel justified in doing the “extra” work (i.e. they do not get outperformed by cheaters.) However, if Tim is and will remain a cheater, why allow him back into that community at all? Expelling him sends a stronger message, protects the community more, and makes the cost to Tim even higher. If Tim loses everything and associates that loss with “getting caught,” there will be even fewer things worth that cost and thus fewer times where Tim might cheat again in the future. Expel the cheaters and keep the students worth saving on campus. Of course nobody comes forth and says “I absolutely did this on purpose and will do it again,” so it is difficult to identify the habitual offenders. A good system should therefore err on the side of helping a responsible student grow and develop into the type of person the school wants their graduates to be. Allowing him to stay on campus can still protect the community. There are many things you can do to someone while keeping them on campus (e.g. fail them for the class, put them on probation for the rest of their career, place a notation on their transcript, mandate self-improvement sessions, etc.) If Tim cheats again or he fails to meet the terms of the sanction, he will reveal himself as irredeemable and then expelling him will make sense.
These same ideas are true with a fraternity, sorority, or other student organization. If a chapter makes a mistake, suspending them for a year does not help them improve. Again, if an organization is dangerous enough to merit removing them from the community for a limited period of time (i.e. suspending them) then why allow them to return at all? If they are a hazing fraternity, suspending them for a year does not protect the students or the community. Expel habitual offenders that are a danger to the community because of their inability or unwillingness to change, and work with the rest to make them better. Suspension neither protects nor educates. We do everything we can to keep an organization on campus so that the very people who criticize us for doing so can help that chapter be what it should.
At College Judicial Consultants we believe that most students or student groups get in trouble, that action is a symptom of a personal or cultural problem, requiring the help and support that separating them from the school does not give. Those students who stray, those students that make serious mistakes, and even those students of flawed character need the support and encouragement of administrators and other authority figures even more than those who do not. Sending them home or suspending their existence as an organization does nothing more than make the lesson “don’t get caught.” Suspending an individual or group treats them the same as the worse offenders, puts them on the defensive, and obfuscates any lessons that are trying to be taught. The solution is a sanction that requires the student or organization to work on the deeper flaws in character or judgment, partner with campus and other officials to do so, and has measurable outcomes to ensure that they make positive change. This is much more difficult, but education is not supposed to be easy.