With operations centered in a small Figueroa Building set against the eastern edge of campus, the Office of Student Judicial Affairs and Community Standards does not appear threatening on first glance.
But that may prove to be far from the case for some USC students, depending on their particular college experience.
SJACS, created in the early 1980s, was given the task of conducting student reviews in cases where students violated the university’s rules and regulations.
“The university decided to start up a department that would review everything and so it would be as one centralized unit that would adjudicate and keep all the [disciplinary] records for the university,” said Dr. Raquel Torres-Retana, assistant dean and director of SJACS.
A student’s experience with SJACS begins with the submission of a report detailing the alleged violation.
Incident reports prepared by DPS officers initiate the bulk of the cases SJACS pursues, according to Torres-Retana, though no case is pursued until the report is determined to have sufficient evidence to warrant proceeding with the student conduct process. SJACS usually will not follow up on reports based on anonymous calls or those with insufficient details.
A prevalent misconception about SJACS is that it deals with situations where a student is “written up” in university-owned housing.
“If it’s at the [Resident Advisor] level, and it’s a minor incident and it just really has to do with the residential community … it doesn’t come to judicial affairs,” Torres-Retana said.
For more serious issues, students are expected to arrange a meeting with an SJACS hearing officer by a date specified in a letter from the department. The
meeting, a one-on-one review with a hearing officer, is designed to minimize anxiety and intimidation for students.
“I think the media for the most part has portrayed college judicial boards … to be a panel of their peers with 15 people around the table, and that’s not how we do it here at USC,” Torres-Retana said. “It’s an administrative review, so it’s a one-on-one — the student who is being written up, or the accused student and the hearing officer.”
After the review, if the hearing officer finds the student is guilty, he or she can choose to either accept or not accept responsibility. If they choose to accept responsibility, the item goes on their disciplinary record but not necessarily on their academic one.
Students have 10 days to appeal the decision before SJACS issues a sanction, which may range from a warning to outright expulsion. According to Torres-Retana, the department aims to teach rather than to punish outright with its sanctions.
“Some of the misconceptions out there are that students are going to go through some type of punitive process and, for the most part, our process and our approach with working with students is developmental,” Torres-Retana said.
Students on the other end of the exchange sometimes feel differently about the efficiency of the process and the applicability of their prescribed sanctions.
According to one sophomore who was written up in December of last year for marijuana and alcohol use, the time between the letter and the scheduled review can often be agonizing.
“The incident happened in December, but we didn’t even get our hearings until, like,
mid-February,” said the student who would only speak under anonymity. “So it took them forever, which was really stressful because you want to know what your
punishment’s going to be.”
As a part of its efforts to educate instead of to simply penalize, SJACS has forged partnerships with the various resource departments throughout the university, such as Health Promotion and Prevention Services and the University Park Health Center. For common alcohol or
drug-related offenses, students have the opportunity to participate in Alcohol and Drug Education Consultation programs, which can include confidential evaluations of their personal substance use and conferences with health professionals.
According to the student, his punishment — when he received it — did not accurately reflect his contestation of the marijuana aspect of his write-up.
“They said, ‘Basically, we’re going to have to keep you on disciplinary probation for the rest of the semester. And, on top of that, we’re going to make you enroll in a two-day drug awareness program … and third you have to write a five-page paper about the positives and negatives of smoking marijuana.’ Even though it said in my report that marijuana wasn’t even in the topic … they still made me write the essay about weed,” the student said.
Ultimately, even if students are unhappy with the process, it is built to help students learn from their mistakes, as well as learn how to avoid disciplinary problems in the future, Torres-Retana said.
“We’re much more about educating students about what they could possibly do, tapping them into resources so they could possibly change their behaviors so they don’t come visit us again,” she said.