Student Union urges WU to expunge alcohol and marijuana offenses from student conduct records

| Senior News Editor

Following conversations with Washington University administrators about potentially allowing students to clear certain conduct violations from their records, Student Union Senate recently passed a resolution urging the University to implement an expungement policy and expand it to include marijuana offenses.

The resolution passed with 19 votes in favor and one abstention, according to SU Executive Vice President junior Anne He.

Senator Philip Keisler, a junior, sponsored the resolution after initial proposals for the policy provided for the expungement of alcohol but not marijuana violations.

“I thought it was important that we as Student Union take a really strong stance that alcohol possession should be able to be expunged, but [that] we also support the ability to expunge marijuana possession,” Keisler said.

Early in the spring 2020 semester, Interim Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Rob Wild met with the University Student Affairs Advisory Board as well as SU to discuss the potential expungement policy, with a goal of getting approval for a policy by the end of the semester. However, the conversation was tabled in March when campus shut down due to the pandemic.

While the SU resolution encouraged the University to take action immediately, Wild said that there was currently no timeline for the release of a new policy.

“We hope we can take it up again in the spring, but we’re not going to revisit it for now because we have many other things we’re focused on,” he said.

Currently, the University’s Student Conduct Code allows for most offenses to be removed from student records after 10 years, with the exception of records related to academic misconduct or cases resulting in suspension or expulsion, which are maintained indefinitely.

Many schools retain records for a far shorter length of time. Vanderbilt removes most student conduct offenses after seven years, the University of Chicago removes such offenses after six years and the University of California, Irvine removes such offenses after five years.

However, Wild noted that not everyone is in favor of allowing students to clear their records before Washington University’s current 10-year period.

“Some people feel like, you know, are you taking away accountability for violations of the student conduct code by allowing students to have their record expunged?” Wild said. “The reason we’re considering it is we’ve always tried to be educational in our process and we do realize that in our process students have the ability to make mistakes, learn from their mistakes and improve.”

Keisler strongly disagreed with the 10-year timeframe, suggesting that students should be able to expunge alcohol and marijuana violations after a maximum of two years.

“If you’re looking at what those 10 years are, you’re talking about when you’re applying to grad schools and when you’re applying for your first job or two—very critical times where you want to have your best foot forward,” he said.

Under the expungement policy proposals that have been discussed so far, students would not automatically have their records dismissed, but would rather apply and explain why they believed themselves to be eligible for having their offenses expunged. Such an approach would be in line with a restorative justice model, promoting learning and growth, according to SU President sophomore Ranen Miao.

“A restorative justice model is…basically applying a framework that says, ‘You are a human being who oftentimes will make mistakes,’” Miao said. “We should focus on, number one, how we can make things right with the person who has been harmed, and number two, how we can help you improve in the future so that this doesn’t happen again—as opposed to the current American model, which is, ‘Let’s punish you as hard as we possibly can and give you as much time in prison as possible,’ when we have statistically, empirically proven that that is not an effective method.”

In addition to the general benefits of the restorative justice model, Miao and Keisler emphasized its importance for communities of color, who are often disproportionately harmed by more punitive enforcement.

“Obviously, Wash. U. is not in itself locking up people for marijuana possession, but the idea that Wash. U. can perpetuate a disparity in the way we’re treating marijuana versus alcohol, which is very much linked to racial justice, isn’t right,” Keisler said. “I think that it’s great that Wash. U. is examining this critically during this time, and hopefully they can adjust and finish the expungement policy in a way that is about restorative justice but also is not furthering disparities between alcohol and marijuana.”

Anti-immigrant sentiment played a major role in sensationalized media coverage and political rhetoric about marijuana in the early 1900s, and racism impacts marijuana’s continued controversial status as a Schedule I drug, according to research cited by the SU resolution.

“The entire war on drugs has, number one, been this incredibly racist scheme to try to arrest and disenfranchise people of color, and secondly, [been] a horrible failure, because we haven’t seen reductions in drug use—we’ve actually just seen it skyrocket,” Miao said. “So the rejection of that criminalization is really important, and that should be one of the primary considerations, I think, that Wash. U. should take into account.”

Wild said that he had not yet looked at the data for drug offenses at the University to see if there was racial bias in enforcement, but that such data would be taken into consideration in the future.

“[The SU resolution] will cause us to, as we’re thinking about expungement, look carefully at the offenses that are eligible for expungement and make sure that there’s not a bias,” Wild said. “If you look at the number of people who are found responsible, are we not allowing students of a certain population—whether it’s race or socioeconomic status—to have access at a consistent level?”

In 2018, the most recent year for which the University’s Clery crime statistics are publicly available, the Washington University Police Department reported 78 drug law disciplinary referrals and six drug law arrests. This was roughly even with 2017, when there were 79 disciplinary referrals and seven arrests, and a significant increase from 2016, which saw 48 disciplinary referrals and five arrests. The records do not specify the type of drug or the demographic breakdown of offenders.

Alcohol violations have been consistently higher; 532 disciplinary referrals were reported in 2018, up from 391 in 2017 and 378 in 2016.

Wild said that no decision had been made for whether or not an expungement policy would apply retroactively, potentially affecting thousands of students, but he said that it seemed like a good goal.

Miao said that he would be meeting with the Office of Student Conduct in the coming week to further discuss the policy.

“I think that the University is open to implementing a restorative justice approach towards student conduct,” he said. “And that’s really important as we move forward, because a lot of our conversations right now about incarceration and policing in the United States also revolve around these core ideas of what justice looks like and how we can best use the restorative model to help make sure that people are able to get justice in a way that’s not focused on punishment and harm, but rather focused on improvement.”

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