Student Rights and Responsibilities announces new COVID-19 amnesty policy

Photo by Venus Edlin

Student Rights and Responsibilities (SRR) announced a COVID-19 amnesty policy that allows students to disclose policy violations related to the virus during contact tracing and sexual misconduct reports, without receiving disciplinary action.

Any information shared under these circumstances is protected as private medical information and will remain anonymous. This policy is meant to encourage students to be honest during contact tracing so exposure during policy violations can be traced. It was first announced in a webinar held by Vice President of Student Life and Dean of Students Robin Holmes-Sullivan on Jan. 22, where SRR also clarified how the college manages COVID-19 policy violations.

Ami Hanna, Lewis & Clark’s case manager and contact tracer, said that this policy has been in practice since last semester, but having it official allows the college to prioritize community safety.

“I will not be reporting conduct violations to anyone,” Hanna said. “What’s most important to me is having an honest and open dialogue with folks that I’m speaking with, and your privacy is going to be my top priority.”

Hanna said it is important to clarify to students that Health and Wellness and SRR are separate entities that deal with two different sides of the COVID-19 mitigation policy. Hanna is not in a reporting or disciplinary role, whereas SRR staff are. 

The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), which limits access to educational records to the public, protects health information disclosed in confidential processes. 

“At the college, we are bound by FERPA, which is a federal law related to information privacy for students,” Hanna said. “With COVID in the world, there is a sort of emergency exemption that allows me to do contact tracing. Essentially, the only people who are going to be notified of your diagnosis are people who qualify as need-to-know.”

However, there are limits to the amnesty policy. If the same incidents are disclosed through other processes that are not confidential, students will be held accountable. According to the policy on the LC website, “repeated or flagrant violations” are exempt from amnesty, as well as actions with “a serious health impact” to the community.

Following the Fall 2020 semester, administrators want to be clear that while the amnesty policy is an important part of COVID-19 mitigation, students who are found to violate policies through unprotected channels will face consequences. Contact tracing, Title IX proceedings and other forms of confidential communication are the only settings where this information is protected.

“It’s important that folks know that we will hold individuals and groups accountable if those decisions (to violate policy) are made,” Holmes-Sullivan said.

Last semester, SRR reported that 125 individuals violated these policies, with 16 repeat offenders at a 12.8% repeat rate. Ninety-nine of these cases received a written warning. Other consequences included reflection papers, behavior contracts, written apologies and disciplinary probation.

Based on news from other colleges that had to shut down, SRR Interim Director Jessica Carron felt that the LC student body complied with policy fairly well last semester.

“I didn’t really have much expectation for reporting,” Carron said. “It feels like it could have been much worse.”

The most extreme form of disciplinary action SRR took was removal from campus. Students who posed a significant health risk were forced to go remote only and live off-campus. SRR is exploring remote-only options instead of suspension.

“COVID has been really hard on students,” Carron said. “We know that, and so if you don’t feel like you can be in a community with these heightened rules, right now, it is a hard thing to be a part of, we want you to continue studying, you just can’t do it here.”

Factors such as severity, impact, repetition and context of the pandemic influence how SRR deals with these cases. Not wearing a mask compared to throwing a party are considered different levels of severity and are dealt with differently. Furthermore, if other students get infected from a policy violation, or if someone is a repeat offender, they will face more severe punishment. Carron also pointed out that the seriousness of the pandemic at the time of the offense influences the level of the consequences.

Carron found that many instances were resolved with better communication and clarification with students, but emphasized that students are held accountable to any new guidelines when they are announced, including those communicated through email.

Carron and Hanna recognize that the pandemic has been difficult for students. However, Hanna said it is important for students to realize that the situation of the pandemic will fluctuate and improve in the coming months.

“The administration is actively looking forward to reevaluating and hopefully giving folks a little bit more wiggle room, but we need to show that we’re responsible enough and cautious enough and communicative enough with each other to sort of earn that,” Hanna said.

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