Michael Suguitan / Sun Staff Photographer

The Cornell administration is balancing concerns from local residents, new statewide policies and a spike in cases, while working to hold students accountable and not acting overly punitive toward them.

September 4, 2020

Cornell Wrestles With Balancing Accountability and Equity in the Age of COVID-19

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Update: This article has been updated to include information from The Office of the Judicial Administrator and Cornell University Police.

Just two days into the semester, Cornell has nearly half the number of active cases to prompt two weeks of remote learning, and the Ithaca community is grappling with how to hold each other accountable.

The Cornell administration is balancing concerns from local residents, new statewide policies and a spike in cases, while working to hold students accountable and not acting overly punitive toward them. One strategy is the behavioral compact, although not all local residents think it will be effective.

Carol Bushberg, an Ithaca resident, said she blames Cornell administrators for what she sees as an overly ambitious reopening plan, and is grateful for Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s (D-N.Y.) recent requirement that universities go remote if they have 100 cases in one week.

“I feel like the state is looking after me a lot better than Cornell is,” Bushberg said.

With a yellow alert active Thursday afternoon, the University is urging students to mask up, social distance and maintain a shared responsibility. But some students who have noticed public health violations have faced barriers when speaking out about them.

The Office of the Judicial Administrator said students can report each other for behavioral compact violations using an online form on the Cornell COVID-19 website. According to Barbara Krause, Interim Judicial Administrator, most behavioral compact violations will be addressed through education rather than with disciplinary proceedings.

Alleged violations will first be routed through the Cornell Compact Compliance team, and cases that the C3T addresses without the J.A.’s involvement, will not go on the student’s disciplinary record.

One undergraduate student, who asked to remain anonymous because she feared retaliation, subletted a house with several other students to quarantine after traveling from a restricted state. Her former housemates hosted non-socially distanced, unmasked parties with alcohol, one of which had over 30 people.

Concerned for her safety and the community’s health, she emailed Vice President for Student and Campus Life Lombardi on Aug. 21.

A Cornell representative then informed her six days later that the University would revoke her anonymity if her housemates asked who reported them and that she would potentially have to engage in a cross examination with her housemates present. She declined to pursue the reporting process, fearing retaliation.

“The inability to report to the University anonymously discourages reporting, and also creates more tension in the community when people do report,” she said.

However, students who are reported can get support. If the Office of the Judicial Administrator contacts students because they are accused of a code violation outside of the Cornell Compact Compliance Team’s jurisdiction, then they can get assistance from the Office of the Judicial Codes Counselor.

More serious violations of the compact can be referred to the J.A. These violations include a failure to test, quarantine and isolate as required. Other major infractions include hosting risky social gatherings and not participating in contact tracing. If a violation is referred from the C3T to the J.A., students may be temporarily suspended — which bans them from campus — although they can appeal.

Marisa O’Gara, a judicial codes counselor, told The Sun that her office provides support to students accused of a behavioral compact violation, which includes help with compiling evidence, understanding the process and drafting appeals.

The possibility of receiving disciplinary action for failing to get tested at their assigned time could create concerns for students struggling to schedule tests because of technical difficulties and long lines.

“We want to make sure that everything that should be taken into consideration is taken into consideration,” O’Gara said. “If I miss a testing appointment because of some really extenuating circumstance, someone might not know that, they might see that I have just not shown up to the test.”

Students whose cases are referred to the J.A. may be temporarily suspended until a University Hearing Board panel or the J.A. office determines that the suspension is no longer needed or if the case has been resolved.

In addition to administrative action, local law enforcement have also been enforcing New York State health regulations off campus.

The Ithaca Police Department has been responding to social distancing violations since the onset of COVID-19, handing out written warnings, according to Vince Monticello, senior deputy chief of police at the IPD. After responding to incidents, local law enforcement file a report with the Tompkins County Health Department and notify Cornell if students are involved in the case.

Monticello said the department’s primary mission is to educate the public and build trust, rather than to arrest people. Similarly, the sheriff’s department that handles most of the coronavirus-related complaints in Tompkins County, said it has “no interest in charging people.”

“We are taking on these complaints at this time because no one else is able to provide such service on a 24/7 basis,” said Derek Osborne, Tompkins County sheriff. “If another entity was able to handle these complaints we would happily turn them over.”

Osborne added that deputies undergo “de-escalation and fair and impartial training.” However, some students said they worried about the presence of weapons for social distancing violations.

Similarly, Cornell University Police Department, just as other local law enforcement, said that they provide an “educational role,” rather than a punitive one when it comes to social distancing violations and will report to C3T, only responding to on campus violations.

“While we prefer that violations are reported to the C3T, the Cornell Police will accept and respond to social distancing and facemask complaints,” wrote Cornell Police Chief David Honan.

“If, while investigating a social distancing complaint, another violation of the campus code or law is found, we will make the appropriate referral for the campus code or criminal offense,” Honan continued.

“What happens when the police officers who are equipped with weapons become the frontlines of enforcing public health issues and enforcing these laws?” said Sofia Franco grad.

Given the reported implicit biases present against people of color in law enforcement and the immunity police officers often have when there’s misconduct, Marie Berry ’22, who spent the summer researching the relation between policing and communities of color, was concerned about the use of law enforcement, including Cornell University Police, to enforce public health concerns.

“If your concern is urgent or you need to speak to someone immediately, please contact the Cornell Police at 607-255-1111 or call 911,” Cornell University admin wrote in the COVID-19 reporting form.

“There’s a lot of qualified people who have undergone a lot of training to deal with tough situations, but police always tend to be the ones who are called,” said Berry, calling upon other trained professionals to respond to social distancing violations.

Particularly, Black people, according to Berry, face “repetitive and inescapable suspicion” from the police and are seen as a threat, including when wanting protection for themselves.

“Just because we’re on a college campus doesn’t make it any different,” Berry said. “The relationship with the police is still a strained relationship.”

Berry said she also worried the consequences of partying, including a possible campus shutdown, would disproportionately affect low-income students.

To increase transparency and accountability, Franco proposed a forum with Cornell and Ithaca community members to freely voice their concerns and engage in an open dialogue with each other. Franco wants institutional support for such a forum.

Sue Perlgut, an Ithaca resident, said she hopes for better accountability solutions that balance the risks of punitive solutions with the risks of COVID-19. She hopes that students will consider that breaking social distancing rules threatens Ithaca and the larger region, will self-regulate their own behavior and talk to their friends about acting responsibly.

“What would it be like if someone in this community died of the virus, because you partied for a weekend?” Perlgut said.