April 1, 2021

BUONANNO | The Campus Code Needs a COVID-Specific Revision

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So, you missed a COVID-19 test. Perhaps, you were found mask-less on the Arts Quad. Or, maybe, you’ve even been forced to pay a visit to  the Office of the Judicial Administrator after an 11-person gathering in your dorm. It’s ok, we are all human. But, given the severity of your treatment (whether it be by an RA or by a University official), these experiences have undoubtedly left a pressing question in your mind: How exactly does Cornell go about handling more serious Behavioral Compact infractions?

With vaccine eligibility a mere week away for most Cornellians, now is not the time to let our guard down. And, if recent COVID-19 spikes have taught us anything it’s that breaches of the Behavioral Compact can have a very real impact on our lives at Cornell. Yet, it is imperative that we continue to question our University’s punitive responses to those very infractions.

Over the last few weeks, I have spoken to a student with knowledge of Cornell’s COVID-19 response — they have expressed their desire to remain anonymous in order to avoid any repercussions. They shared that  the Office of the Judicial Administrator treats certain Behavioral Compact infractions as violations of Title Three of the Campus Code of Conduct. Specifically, they have noted that students have been charged under a subsection of that Title which reads as follows:

“To (1) endanger another person, including but not limited to such acts as: introducing a weapon into a fight, whether or not the weapon was used; using one’s body parts as a weapon; violation of Life Safety regulations; theft or use of fire extinguishers; use of firecrackers or flares; or any other acts, whether reckless or intentional, that create a dangerous situation for the safety of another individual (2) threaten or use physical force or violence to endanger, injure, abuse, intimidate, or coerce another person.”

The OJA declined to respond substantively to this claim, only noting that “incidents referred to the OJA are resolved by the process outlined by the Campus Code of Conduct” and that “transcripts are generally notated only in incidents involving violations that result in sanctions of suspension or dismissal per the Code and the Office of the University Registrar.”

There is no doubt that Behavioral Compact infractions are in violation of “Life Safety regulations.” But that is besides the point. Students who receive formal disciplinary action, such as a suspension, will receive a note on their transcript only referring to this broad portion of the Code. Is it really fair to burden students with the weight of such a broad and vilifying charge on their transcripts as they enter the job market? Although an overgeneralization, missing a COVID-19 test is vastly different from “introducing a weapon into a fight.”

I don’t intend to argue that students who refuse to follow COVID-19 protocol ought to be given a free ride. The opposite is true, they should face disciplinary action for endangering the lives of Cornellians and residents of the community that supports our University. But the pandemic has been going on for long enough now that the Code needs revising. COVID-19 is no longer temporary, and the need for pandemic related regulations will likely remain for several years (even after life at Cornell returns to normal).

Most importantly, though, these revisions must be made with empathy and accessibility at the forefront of our decision making. A simple glance at the above statute is enough to tell you how legalistic our Code reads. This tone is not appropriate for a campus community that boasts inclusion and compassion for its student body.

Further, not every COVID violation is made equal. As is commonly noted in the national media landscape, Black Americans and other Americans of color have a justifiable distrust in the healthcare industry. Potentially punishing students in the aforementioned manner for being skeptical of on campus medicine shows ignorance of systematic racism in medicine.

Countless irresponsible acts on campus go unchecked every day. For those living in Collegetown and on North, it is not a secret that student organizations are still throwing social events. What the Code needs right now is a COVID-19 specific amendment which lays out a comprehensive and clear system by which disciplinary action is assigned to those in violation of the Behavioral Compact.

Given Tuesday’s surveillance testing announcement, it seems as though Cornell will continue to increase the severity of enforcement measures for the Behavioral Compact. But these regulations can’t exist in a vacuum. It’s time to fix what put us in this mess in the first place.

Peter Buonanno is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at pbuonanno@cornellsun.com. His column, The Wyckoff Club, runs alternate Fridays this semester.