EDITORIAL: Transparency and oversight needed regarding consequences of violating COVID-19 regulations
Since the University announced its reopening plans on June 30, several on-campus offices and departments, including the Department of Community Living, the Office of Student Affairs, the COVID-19 Task Force and the Dean of Students Office, have collaborated to implement a number of mandatory policies to ensure the health and safety of Brandeis students, faculty and staff. The measures—which include social distancing, mask wearing outdoors and indoors, limitations on gatherings, completion of daily health assessments and frequent testing—apply to all members of the community engaging in any type of activity on-campus. While the University has emphasized that violations of these policies will “result in loss of on-campus privileges and may also result in disciplinary action,” it remains unclear what exactly this disciplinary action will entail. This board worries that such lack of specificity from both the administration and the various offices that will enforce the policies could lead to discriminatory practices against students of color in the Brandeis community.
The lack of specificity regarding how COVID-19 safety guideline policy violations will be handled is especially concerning given issues voiced during the 2015 Ford Hall sit-in and the #StillConcerned2019 protest. In both of these instances, students shared their experiences with DCL and the Brandeis Department of Public Safety, stating that they felt these offices over-policed students of color. DCL is heavily involved in enforcing current coronavirus policies, given that residence halls are sites of student interaction and activities. DCL coordinates isolation and quarantine procedures should a student living on-campus test positive. In addition, a video from Brandeis’ COVID-19 training module reminds everyone that, “Public Safety is legally required to respond to every call that comes in. That means that excessive policing occurs when our campus community members call Public Safety in situations that do not warrant a response from a police officer.”
The Justice reached out to the Office of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion, the body on campus that supports “community members in the various dimensions of diversity, equity and inclusion,” to determine whether the University was monitoring or investigating whether students of color are disproportionately cited for community standards violations, or if they face disproportionately severe consequences for community standard violations. In a Sept. 4 email to the Justice, Mark Brimhall-Vargas, the Chief Diversity Officer and Vice President of ODEI, shared that, while they do not have “direct oversight responsibility” for Student Affairs—an umbrella organization composed of DCL, Hiatt Career Center, Department of Student Rights and Community Standards and other groups on campus—OEDI and Student Affairs “have a very collaborative relationship.” In fact, in response to the #StillConcerned2019 protest, ODEI and the Department of Student Rights and Community Standards began a data analysis project to identify whether “BIPOC are disproportionately brought to conduct or being given harsher sanctions,” he mentioned in the same email. In response to the Justice's inquiry about whether ODEI was monitoring potential discrepancies in COVID-19 safety measure enforcement, Brimhall-Vargas wrote, "Following your question here, I inquired with DOSO, and we thought we could certainly continue working together to monitor this issue with their conduct data." This board applauds this choice, while also calling for transparency in the results of this data monitoring so that the community is aware of this oversight and its findings.
Brimhall-Vargas and Assistant Dean of Student Rights and Community Standards Alex Rossett shared in subsequent emails to the Justice that in the data analysis conducted so far, they "were not able to discern a pattern of BIPOC students being disproportionately brought to conduct or being given harsher sanctions." However, this initial data analysis does not erase continual concerns among students of color that they are being policed disproportionately. While we recognize that COVID-19 safety measures are incredibly important, these new rules will also require an increase in the amount of policing and disciplinary actions undertaken on campus, which could potentially exacerbate the disparities that students of color have raised concerns about previously.
In his email, Brimhall-Vargas also pointed out that the Office of Equal Opportunity is available to students "as a resource if they feel that COVID-19 safety policies are being enforced in a discriminatory or inequitable way.” Our goal in this editorial is to ensure that there is adequate transparency and accountability in COVID-19 safety enforcement on campus that such individual-level resources will not be necessary.
This board applauds the cooperation started by the ODEI and the Department of Student Rights and Community Standards and its continued attention to COVID-19 safety enforcement. However, this board also strongly encourages the University to be specific and transparent in regards to current COVID-19 policies and the types of disciplinary action that would ensue if they are violated. Doing so will make students more aware of the consequences of their actions while also ensuring transparency and accountability by the offices on campus making disciplinary decisions.
—Editor’s Note: Justice Editor Cameron Cushing ’23 is a Community Advisor for DCL. He did not contribute to or edit this article.