Social Media and Student Conduct

pexels-photo-48709One of the more frequent conduct related questions I get from Resident Director staff is:

“I just got information/pictures/tweets/etc from online that seem to be a policy violation, what do I do?”

I am often surprised by this question because it seems like we are trying to reinvent the wheel when our current wheel works actually pretty well.  Lots of stories are out there about colleges adjudicating online violations – most of them negative.  Remember, when conduct goes well, it doesn’t make the news.  There is a LOT of good work out there, and I am here to share some philosophy behind those good decisions.

Many of our student conduct principles work well, even in digital spaces.  We just need to remember, getting a picture or tweet is no different than an RA reporting they observed a student violating a policy.  It is evidence to consider, but it should not be taken with full authority.  In my experience, I have found the following practices work well in adjudicating potential policy violations in a meaningful way that keeps relationships between the student and myself.

  1. Adjudicate behaviors and not people.  You aren’t trying to figure out whether the student is a good person or a jerk.  We don’t have policies against being a jerk.  We have policies that create boundaries of behavior.  When we adjudicate behaviors, we leave the judgement of a human being on the side.  I don’t want the power to determine whether the student I am meeting with is a good person or not, ESPECIALLY when my decision impacts them in real ways.  I don’t get paid enough to play a deity in my work.
    • Keep in mind, past behavior DOES play a role in adjudicating (in my opinion).  If a student is already on probation for past behavior, or was given a written warning, that gets factored in, because the repeated behavior is still a behavior.
    • When you get online pictures, tweets, texts, etc, this means you assume there is something you aren’t seeing and give the student an opportunity to fill in the social media gaps.
  2. Go into a conduct case assuming the best.  We operate from research principles that use null hypothesis.  We research the null hypothesis to determine whether the opposite is true.  If you go in assuming the student did NOT do what they said happened, your decision will be much clearer.  This is a challenge.  At the end of the day, I will tell students “I am going to believe you.  Because when I go to bed tonight, I know I assumed the best of you.  You have to go to bed tonight knowing you told the truth or you lied.  That’s on you.  And, one of two things will happen.  Either you will be involved in another potential policy violation or you won’t.  If you are, well, next time this happens, here are the consequences.  It is up to you to decide whether your behavior changes”
    • When it comes to social media, this means if a student tells you something has been doctored, and isn’t real (which can happen – click here)  you need to check that out before you make the decision.  Also, if they provide you more context for their behavior, you need to consider that in the consequences.  You may still find them in violation, but when you assign sanctions, this context may impact your decision.
  3. Do not make decisions in your conduct meeting.  Always explain to the student you will chew on what they are telling you and at least sleep on it before making a final decision.  You can give probabilities (like a weather person) so they understand the reality of their situation and start setting their future expectations.  For example, I have said to a student “you are acknowledging you drank.  If I find you provided the alcohol, you may face stronger sanctions. But if it is purely consumption, you are looking at a written warning and the alcohol class.  I’ll sleep on it and make a decision tomorrow.
    • In social media, what this means is when you don’t know, be ok with that.  Give yourself time.  If a student brings something up and you aren’t sure what they mean or what they are talking about, make a note, and then finish the meeting.  Tell the student, I am going to do more research before making a decision.  Then, talk to a colleague who may be more versed on social media venues and how things work.  Feel free to contact us, we are here to help you navigate.  THEN make your decision.
  4. Always give the student the chance to appeal the decision.  I know this is hard.  WE. ARE. NOT. PERFECT.  We make mistakes.  The appeals process protects the students from our mistakes.  Embrace this process and always encourage the students to use the process.  I’ll always explain to students:
    • “You can’t really appeal if you don’t like my decision, but if you believe I made a mistake in how I determined the preponderance of evidence, my sanction was too severe, or I didn’t give you due process (after explaining what that means), you should appeal.  My hope is this meeting we are having IS your due process.  My hope is I have carefully considered what you are saying.  Due process doesn’t mean I need to believe what you are saying, especially if evidence is weighed heavily against you, but I still need to chew on and consider what you are telling me.  If I don’t do that, feel free to tell me now, so I can adjust.  My hope is you don’t need the appeal process, but it is there if you do.”

By using our current conduct principles, we can easily handle most social media issues that arise.  We don’t need new policies, we just need to apply our policies in digital spaces.

What are your thoughts?  Do you think there are principles that may not translate?  Discuss below:

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