Students’ experiences with enforcement of Georgetown’s COVID-19 regulations

December 19, 2020

Illustration by Deborah Han

Students on and living around Georgetown University’s campus are subject to a number of COVID-19 regulations, and, while they feel the regulations are fair, some worry the process for enforcing them is not.

After Georgetown announced in late July that the school would be conducting courses virtually for the Fall 2020 semester, students began scavenging for off-campus housing in an attempt to create a somewhat normal semester. With students back in D.C., the number of Georgetown community members infected continued to rise during the semester. As of Dec. 14, there have been 84 positive COVID-19 cases among students residing in the surrounding neighborhoods  reported to Georgetown since Aug. 24.

College campuses and neighborhoods are struggling with how to regulate, impose and enforce rules preventing the spread of  COVID-19. To suppress the virus’s spread, the university has imposed restrictions on student gatherings, sanctioning students who do not comply. If students live on campus or in the neighborhoods of Georgetown, Burleith, or Foxhall, they must sign and comply with the Georgetown Community Compact, which outlines Georgetown’s COVID-19 health and safety policies and requirements. The compact emphasizes that noncompliance with COVID-19 health and safety measures will enhance disciplinary sanctions. Patrolling the community is the Student Neighborhood Assistance Program (SNAP), a service that works with the Office of Neighborhood Life to ensure neighborhood safety during the academic year. During specific hours, SNAP is on active patrol and responding to calls from student and non-student community members.

Punishable actions include failure to wear a mask outside in the neighborhood and when in a residence with guests; hosting or attending a gathering of more than 10 people on campus or in the neighborhood; failure to maintain six feet of physical distance from people who are not members of your household; and failure to comply with university testing, quarantine, and contract tracing policies. 

The most common sanctions include disciplinary probation one (an official disciplinary warning), disciplinary probation two (an official disciplinary status), suspension, dismissal, guest prohibition, and housing probation (loss of the privilege of remaining in current housing). Having a disciplinary record can affect students’ ability to study abroad and impact their applications for graduate/professional school or future employment.

“We want to remind all students that COVID-19 presents health risks to everyone, including students living on campus, students living off campus, and people of all ages,” a university spokesperson wrote in an email to the Voice. “We urge students to take every precaution to preserve their safety and the safety of others, and to follow all health and safety measures put in place by the University.” 

Though most students see the importance of the policies, some students facing disciplinary action  have raised concerns that the disciplinary process itself is unfair. 

Bella Calastri (NHS ’23) and Perri Cahill (NHS ’23) were charged with a noise complaint, COVID-19 violation, and failure to comply after SNAP found them at another student’s off-campus house with 10 masked people, they say. According to the pair, when SNAP came to the house, four students, scared, ran out of the back door, while the other six students stayed. In the incident report, however, SNAP reported there were 11 students there, one over the allowed amount. 

“SNAP miscounted it as 11  because when four people ran out the back, one of the people who lived there ran after them and called to them to come back,” said Calastri. “The SNAP officer that was in the back counted that person in their count. That person then walked back to the front of the house, and another SNAP officer counted him then too.” 

When SNAP told them that they believed there were more than 10 people there, the hosts of the gathering tried to tell the officers that there were only 10, according to Calastri, and apologize for the noise complaint. This conversation between the male students and SNAP officers contributed to Calastri and Cahill’s charge of failure to comply with the officers, despite their claims that they had little direct interaction with SNAP. 

“Bella and I got the same sanctions as the residents even though we did not speak with the officers unless spoken to or host the gathering,” said Cahill. 

Before their hearing, Calastri and Cahill reached out to the Student Advocacy Office (SAO), which advises students on navigating the university disciplinary system. After consulting with SAO, the two thought they would leave their hearing with a noise complaint. However, once in the conduct hearing, they realized they were facing more severe charges than expected based on their perception of the incident.

“Right up front in the hearing, they said, ‘Look all of you are saying there were only ten people there, the SNAP officers are saying there were eleven, we are going to go by the SNAP officers report unless you give us all of the names of the other people,’” Calastri said.

The Code of Student Conduct states that “for allegations that occurred off-campus, the standard of proof is ‘More Likely Than Not.'” According to SAO Director Michael Miller (SFS ’22), this results in the university taking the incident report as likely. 

“Most of the time, the Office of Student Conduct (OSC) trusts what the incident report says. So if the incident report is saying they thought there were more than ten people, it is really difficult for a student to then dispute that,” Miller said. 

Startled by the additional accusations and worried their friends would get in further trouble with OSC, the students in the hearing declined to give the guests’ names and were also charged with a COVID-19 violation. “The only way we would get out of trouble is if we threw people under the bus,” said Cahill. 

Calastri and Cahill are now on disciplinary probation two, a disciplinary status that requires them to meet certain conditions to avoid suspension, even though they claim all of their actions were compliant with Georgetown’s COVID-19 protocol. This disciplinary status will be reflected on their academic record. Because their sanctions fell short of suspension, the pair are unable to appeal the decision under the COVID-19 student conduct policy. 

According to a university spokesperson, changes in disciplinary policy have been communicated to students and are necessary to keep everyone safe. “All of this is a direct response to the real risks the virus poses to the Georgetown community,” a university spokesperson wrote in an email to the Voice. “We have been transparent about these adjustments.” The university does not comment on specific cases. 

In Miller’s experience, the complexity of the appeals process and high standard of evidence makes it difficult for students to argue their cases, creating a sense of disempowerment among students.

“I can’t really say that appeals even in a non-COVID semester have been very successful from what we’ve seen. But I think it contributes to a student’s perception of lack of agency throughout this process. Even if they have some dispute, it’s very hard for them in these circumstances,” Miller said. 

Calastri and Cahill’s experience is not unique. A current senior, who will remain anonymous as he did not sign the compact, and his roommates had a similar experience with SNAP and the OSC. 

One night, SNAP knocked on their door and, once the residents answered the door with masks, gave the group a noise complaint, the senior said. Two hours later, a SNAP officer saw four people walking down the street leaving the residence without their masks on. According to the senior,  the guests were wearing masks when they left and took them off once outside. 

As a result of that night, the house was written up for a noise complaint and a COVID violation, failing to monitor guests. The two roommates home at the time were put on disciplinary probation one, and the entire household was put on guest prohibition. 

“The OSC told us that there was nothing we could do to prove to them that they had masks on in the house and took them off when they left, so because of that, we got put on guest prohibition for the rest of the semester,” said the senior. 

Under the “More Likely than Not Policy,” students who contest their charges need adequate evidence to back up their claims. “The standard for evidence has gone up a lot, especially in COVID related sanctions,” Miller said.“The OSC is often asking students to show evidence of where they were at that point in time.” 

Students who claim innocence, but are unable to produce a restaurant or rideshare receipt to verify their location at the time of an incident, cannot meet this standard of evidence.   

Some of the roommates that weren’t there showed texts to a friend as proof saying ‘I’m coming over,’ and they pretty much said you needed receipts from an Uber or restaurant to actually prove it,” said the senior. “Which is ridiculous because if you were to just leave your house and not be there and have people vouch for you they essentially say, ‘That doesn’t matter and you need to spend money somewhere to prove you weren’t actually in a location.’”

According to a university spokesperson, the severe health risks posed by COVID-19 necessitate these stringent standards of evidence. “We have adapted our conduct policies due to the urgency of addressing public health risks associated with gatherings and non-usage of masks,”  a university spokesperson wrote in an email to the Voice. “All of this is done in an effort to protect public health and return everyone to campus.” 

A month later, the senior and two of his roommates who were not present during the previous violation had three people over after dinner. If the house was not on guest prohibition, this gathering would have complied with the university’s COVID-19 protocol. SNAP knocked on their door again, saying they could hear a female voice, and therefore knew they were violating their guest prohibition. 

In their student conduct meeting, the two roommates, who were not present for the first violation, were told they could stay in the area and be suspended, or they could choose to immediately go home and be put on disciplinary probation two for two semesters. 

According to the senior,  his roommates felt like they didn’t have a choice, and left D.C. and accepted disciplinary probation 2. 

“There was no way to appeal it because to appeal it, they would have had to accept the suspension and be pulled out of classes a month before finals,” said the senior.

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