Tusculum College dean makes presentation to peers about recent legislative changes and challenges regarding student conduct
Dr. David McMahan, dean of students at Tusculum College, recently made a presentation to his peers in the Tennessee Independent Colleges and Universities Association (TICUA) about best practices in student conduct with regard to recent legislative changes and the challenges presented by electronic social media.
McMahan made his presentation during a TICUA Chief Student Affairs Officer Retreat on Nov. 11.
His initial remarks addressed the implications for colleges of a recent U.S. Department of Education (DOE) Office for Civil Rights letter to educational institutions regarding bullying in relation to federal harassment legislation. While commending schools for proactive efforts in addressing bullying and the increasing forms of “cyber-bullying,” the DOE’s primary message was that many forms of bullying constitute harassment under federal legislation and must be addressed accordingly, McMahan told his colleagues.
To comply with these regulations, he continued, institutions of higher education must be able to assure that they are supporting an alleged victim with appropriate accommodations while acting promptly and effectively to identify harassment, and if it is found, to end the harassment, prevent its recurrence and remedy its effects.
Dean McMahan also addressed two related challenges facing many private and public higher education institutions - identifying “harassment” under the law and determining how far the institution’s jurisdiction should reach in addressing conduct.
On the first point, he referenced the DOE Office for Civil Rights’ standard that “conduct must be sufficiently serious to deny or limit a student’s ability to participate in or benefit from the educational program” evaluated from the position of a “reasonable person” considering the alleged victim’s perspective and circumstances and that harassment prohibited by the statutes within the office’s jurisdiction “must include something beyond the mere expression of views, words, symbols or thoughts that some person finds offensive.”
Continuing, Dean McMahan noted the increased difficulty presented by the hurtful impact of cyber-bullying due to rapid incident escalation and the lack of ability to interpret tone in actions made through social media that could be considered cyber-bullying such as exclusion, denigration, flaming, stalking, impersonation, trickery and outing.
Dean McMahan called for more proactive and preventive measures such as educational training in avoidance, de-escalation and reporting of incidents rather than interventions after-the-fact such as student discipline, which are unlikely to be the most productive approach to addressing the problem in light of a number of studies that show that zero-tolerance policies have not been effective in adjusting student behavior or providing more civil school environments.
He also called upon administrators to “meet poor speech with more speech” (citing Derek Bok, past president of Harvard University) and embrace their role in speaking out publicly against hateful speech.
Addressing the jurisdictional question regarding expressive conduct (free speech), Dean McMahan pointed to developing constitutional case law which public higher education institutions most observe that speaks to the connection between off-campus behavior and the likelihood of a substantial disruption of the academic environment on campus. Private colleges and universities seek to engage students in productive dialogue about fair and equitable treatment and defining the community values that are reflected in their regulations which makes this dialogue relevant even though private institutions are able to define behavior expectations more stringently than their public peers.