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Rice University

Mel Xiao, a Rice University senior who helps investigate and adjudicate COVID-19 rule violations by other students, doesn’t mind if she’s viewed by her peers as “big brother” on campus.

Xiao is one of 11 students at Rice who served as a judge on the COVID Community Court, or CCC, a student-led judiciary that looks into reports of students neglecting to wear masks or socially distance, or who are hosting visitors in their dorm rooms, which are violations of the university’s Culture of Care Agreement for the 2020-21 academic year. A three-judge panel hears and investigates each low-level COVID-19-related violation and doles out “educational” punishments, such as writing an apology letter or hanging up posters that promote public health measures in their dorm, said Emily Garza, director of student judicial programs at Rice.

While Xiao and Garza believe the student-on-student disciplinary process is more effective than sending minor violations directly to university officials, Xiao has heard some criticism by students on social media. Students say they don’t want to be a “snitch” and report violations by friends, or argue that the CCC isn’t a “big deal” since it only handles violations that occur on campus, she said. There are students who view the CCC as an extra set of eyes, waiting for them to slip up so they can be reprimanded. And some Rice alumni have weighed in on social media to consider the idea of a student court and question the need for it, while others have made fun of the notion of students policing each other and turning each other in. Xiao said she’s been thinking about these negative perceptions of the student court as she considers applying to be a judge again in the spring.

“I don’t know if there’s a great answer to the accusation of, ‘I feel like I’m being watched,’ because in a way you are,” she said. But at the end of the day, students should be more concerned about getting sick, or passing COVID-19 onto someone else, Xiao said. She was sick with the coronavirus in September and said the experience has been “formative” for her work with the CCC.

“I would rather have students upset with me for telling them to wear a mask” or to sit apart from each other, rather “than someone ending up intubated in the ICU,” she said.

Garza said the CCC appears to have been effective during the fall semester and provided an additional layer of student accountability. The university plans to continue the program when students return to campus in January. About 130 total reports of student violations came in during the fall, and the CCC handled about half of them, she said.

More serious violations, such as hosting large gatherings or repeated and “intentional” refusal to follow the university policies outlined in the Culture of Care agreement, are handled by administrators in student judicial programs, Garza said.

She said the university hasn’t received reports of major parties held by students, as has occurred at other colleges because Rice's student leaders are setting an example for their peers.

“I think that’s a big part of it,” Garza said. “We have students that have social capital in their colleges and are modeling behavior for their peers in a way that demands compliance.”

Rice’s new method for responding to COVID-19 rule breakers is fairly unique and stems from the university’s tradition of student-led bodies that enforce conduct, such as the academic council and university court, which respond to low-level code of conduct violations, Garza said.

There are a few other campuses that have tasked their already existing student boards with responding to COVID-19 violations. The student review board at Kansas State University uses a “three-tier system” for disciplining students who do not follow the university’s coronavirus guidelines, said Andy Thompson, senior associate dean of students.

The board, which in a typical year handles conduct such as alcohol violations, does not get involved until a student violates the COVID-19 guidelines three times and has already been issued a warning letter and had a meeting with a dean in the Office of Student Life. Thompson said the review board has been part of the university's conduct process for at least 12 years, and he feels “fortunate” that no student so far has reached a student review board hearing as a result of repeated violations of pandemic expectations.

“The students take pride in the work that they do in the process to make students feel comfortable but still learn from it,” Thompson said. “We don’t want meeting with the student review board to be looked at as some terrible thing. We want it to be seen as the process to help students onto graduation.”

When considering how to handle complaints about student behavior during the public health crisis, it was important to both administrators and student leaders that the university maintain processes that students were already familiar with. The university bureaucracy is a “complicated machine” and policies and procedures can be difficult for students to navigate, said Ashton Hess, attorney general of the university’s Student Governing Association, or SGA, who appoints students to serve on the review board and oversees the SGA’s judicial branch. Some students who lived at home during the spring and summer in communities with fewer COVID-19 restrictions had to adjust to stricter public health requirements on the K-State campus when they returned in the fall, Hess said.

Hess said the student review board at K-State is a beneficial part of the university’s conduct process, in part because it issues diverse and creative educational sanctions. Sometimes students are asked to complete learning modules or write an apology letter, but students could also be assigned to attend a student organization meeting that is relevant to the violation, Hess said.

“Students have a different perspective than administrators a lot of the time,” she said. “Having this student review board helps students develop the behavior they want to see out of their peers … We never sanction to punish -- we sanction to educate.”

But even if student-led judicial programs have the best of intentions, some infectious disease experts say they aren’t an ideal approach to managing the coronavirus on campus. Julia Marcus, an epidemiologist and professor in the department of population medicine at Harvard Medical School, tweeted that having such a process for disciplining violations could reduce trust between peers.

“I appreciate the effort to engage students in mitigation efforts, but the reliance on shaming and punishment can cause real harms,” Marcus tweeted.

Marcus and other experts have spoken out in recent months against colleges’ punitive and “unrealistic” approaches to controlling student social behavior. One other expert, Gregg Gonsalves, a professor of epidemiology at the Yale University School of Public Health, also tweeted that assigning students to respond to COVID-19 rule violations at Rice isn’t a good approach.

“As soon as you see the words 'courts,' 'prosecute,' 'rule breakers,' you know you're in the land of coercion, shame, punishment,” Gonsalves said. “Devolving the responsibility of policing to students doesn't make it better.”

Xiao, the Rice student court judge, acknowledged that there is “some shame attached” to students going before a judicial panel to discuss how they failed to follow the university’s guidelines. Having any type of mechanism for reporting and responding to student behavior -- which most colleges and universities do have for COVID-19 -- relies on peers “shaming” one another, she said.

Xiao doesn’t think university officials and student leaders have many other options to ensure compliance. “Positive incentives are hard to come by” when it comes to COVID-19, she said.

Still, some colleges have found a way to reward students for good behavior, such as giving prizes to students who are regularly tested for the virus and by using other strategies implemented alongside enforcement measures. Matt Gregory, dean of students at Texas Tech University, said during the first few weeks of the fall semester, various student organization members and leaders were out on campus giving out freebies to students who were wearing their masks and "gently nudging" those who weren't to put them on.

"We as an institution have not really taken a punitive approach as our first preference," Gregory said. "Naturally, we have had to use our conduct system for noncompliance," but more for students with egregious cases or repeated instances of lack of compliance. "Our preference was more of an educational, social norming effort."

Rice does have undergraduate public health ambassadors for each of its residential colleges that work in tandem with the student court to promote healthy behaviors, Xiao said. The ambassadors distribute information about COVID-19 and the Culture of Care agreement and attend college events to get face time with other students and ensure public health guidelines are being followed, she said.

But over all Xiao recognized that the university's model mostly relies on punishment for ensuring the number of COVID-19 cases on campus stays low.

"I wish it wasn’t a fear-driven response, I really do," she said. "But for now, it is what it is."

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