Spike in cases of ethical and academic breaches at student judicial affairs office

USC students say the lack of transparency and timeliness throughout the lengthy SJACS disciplinary process has hurt their mental health.

USC’s system for handling student disciplinary actions has been criticized for years for lack of transparency and timeliness. Now, more than a year into an unprecedented online learning environment forced by a global pandemic, the Student Judicial Affairs and Community Standards (SJACS) Office is inundated with high numbers of reports of cheating and other academic integrity violations.

A USC spokeswoman, on behalf of Student Affairs, told Annenberg Media that the remote testing environment beginning in March 2020 resulted in dramatically higher numbers of reported academic integrity cases, which were more difficult and time-consuming to evaluate due to the un-proctored nature of Zoom and difficulty collecting evidence.

The SJACS office found a 115% increase in reported academic integrity violations from Fall 2019 to Fall 2020. Reports from the partially online Spring 2020 semester increased by 15% compared with Spring 2019 and involved 14% more students. In the past three academic years, SJACS dealt with more than 1,000 cases annually, Student Affairs told Annenberg Media. The university did not share the figures from the Spring 2021 semester.

“The remote testing environment necessitated by the pandemic resulted in a higher volume of academic integrity cases and also made it more time-consuming to evaluate those cases because additional evidence must be gathered and reviewed given that proctors have not been physically present during exam administrations,” said the spokeswoman.

As a result, USC is “hiring and adding resources to increase capacity” at SJACS, the spokeswoman said. There also has been an effort over the last several months to establish a process to review the university’s student conduct system, she added.

The surge in academic integrity violations — reported here for the first time — emerged as students are taking to Reddit to criticize the office for its lengthy process and handling of cases, which they say disregards students’ mental health. Students claim that delays in cases have caused increased anxiety, depression and other mental health issues.

Prior to the pandemic, SJACS was already receiving complaints from USC students about its handling of cases. Annenberg Media spoke with eight current and former students who detailed what they called a lack of respect and responsiveness and cases that stretched as long as one year. The students declined to be named out of concern that their comments would affect the status of their SJACS cases or to protect their own privacy. Annenberg Media presented each of the claims below to USC for comment, and in each case, Student Affairs declined to comment, citing student privacy laws.

One student posted on Reddit about his own experience with SJACS, which he said lasted seven months.

“My mental health reached the lowest it had ever been,” the student with the Reddit username pomorand19, wrote in a statement to Annenberg Media. “I was constantly anxious, worried, down and had trouble even getting out of bed some days. [They] really don’t care if you develop depression, trauma or are *this* close to committing self-harm.”

He said he was initially notified of allegations of academic misconduct in May 2020 and was found innocent in January 2021. The student told Annenberg Media that he was also suffering from a number of personal tragedies during his case— deaths and illness in his family, and his mother was furloughed from work. He claimed that the professor and SJACS officer involved in the case offered no support or clarity on the case.

Student Affairs, through the spokeswoman, said there are resources available for anyone struggling. “If a student expresses concern about the length of the process impacting their mental health, SJACS staff will connect the student with other departments on campus that can provide supportive resources,” she said.

As far as the length of time for cases to be resolved, the spokeswoman commenting for Student Affairs said it is difficult to predict the duration of a typical case since each report is unique. Factors that make the process longer include the availability of students and witnesses to meet, the volume of information to review and consider and the number of students or reporting parties involved in the particular circumstance. The school is “moving cases forward as quickly as possible,” the spokeswoman said.

“Although the university recognizes that lengthier reviews can be distressing to students, academic integrity is foundational in an institution of higher learning and preserving a system of accountability is an important priority that benefits all members of our community,” she told Annenberg Media.

Still, the complaints are soaring online as students share stories of their suffering.

In another interview, a rising junior said that she waited a year for a follow-up from SJACS after initially being notified. She believes that SJACS’ lack of timeliness and responsiveness throughout the process is contradictory to the rules they impose on students. More than one year after the case began, she said she was ultimately notified of the case sanctions during finals week and had no choice but to manage the sanctions concurrently with her final exams.

Processes for SJACS proceedings are explained on its website and include a meeting between the accused student and a judicial officer, review of the case by the office, determination of the student’s sanctions, and, in some cases, an appeal by the student. The spokeswoman noted that students “are highly encouraged” to provide their perspective by participating in the process and can find information about it in Part B of the Student Handbook.

Incident reports can be filed by faculty and staff up to one year after the alleged incident, and the time frame can be extended under special circumstances, according to the website. Once a student is notified of the allegation, they have five business days to respond before they may be subject to further sanctioning or Summary Administrative Review, where they can dispute the facts and sanctions.

A rising sophomore who goes by the Reddit username Tricky-Top-7595 commented on another user’s post on May 19, “I literally feel like I’m going to lose everything,” adding that the situation felt hopeless. In an interview with Annenberg Media, the student said that for the first week after she was notified she barely ate or slept and emailed her professor four times with no response. She said she was notified of the accusation by her professor in mid-May, she said awaited a follow-up email from SJACS for nearly a month and said her advisor recommended re-enrolling in the class again over the summer should sanctions ultimately result in an F on her transcript.

“What’s worse is not even knowing… now I have to spend $1,400 on a summer class just in case,” she said. “I just feel dread.”

SJACS is not only being criticized by students.

The national professional advisor to a social fraternity said that USC’s process for student judicial cases was unlike anything they had seen at any of the other 200 universities they interact with. The advisor, who declined to be named to be able to speak candidly, said they had never witnessed such aggression from judicial affairs officers.

“The way SJACS officers showed up in meetings was unprofessional and outside of their bounds,” the advisor told Annenberg Media. “They were rarely prepared for the meeting at hand, did not follow their prescribed processes, and consistently demeaned the students they were working with.The process was not student-focused, nor did the adjudication match the allegations.”

The USC spokeswoman for Student Affairs declined to comment on this and the other specific allegations reported in this story.

The president of a separate social fraternity described an ongoing SJACS case involving an accusation of hosting a chapter-sponsored event at the chapter house.

The president, who requested anonymity, said that SJACS officials had initially reached out to the fraternity’s former president, who is no longer in that role. He speculated that SJACS does not keep updated records on student organizations and called the officials working for the office unprepared. He denied the accusation about the event and told Annenberg Media that it was unrelated to the fraternity’s chapter.

In the disciplinary process, the president said he requested body-camera footage of the incident but SJACS did not respond or provide the requested footage.

“I feel that SJACS needs to reevaluate the way that they handle cases pertaining to student organizations and individuals with the respect that they deserve,” the president told Annenberg Media via email. “The lack of a timely response and failure to keep updated records exemplifies the office’s inadequacy to do its job and changes must be made to protect student rights and to safeguard the university from another avoidable scandal.”

The same student said that he was also accused of violating COVID-19 protocols and was banned from campus as a result. In an effort to prove his innocence, he said that he appealed to SJACS and provided them with his internet browsing history from the evening of the accusation, which showed that he had been studying alone. In the email to Annenberg Media, he said that SJACS did not acknowledge the evidence and that he believes it was not taken into consideration during his case.

The former president of another social fraternity said he endured an eight-month case due to an accusation of COVID-19 protocol violations and said he felt disrespected throughout the process.

SJACS alleged that the violation happened when a memorial service later escalated into a party at an off-campus house. The former president said that when he tried to explain that the memorial itself was socially distanced, masked and following proper protocol, he said he was told by an SJACS officer that what happened later that night proved that the fraternity “did not care for the friend that had died” and that instead of honoring his friend’s life he was “putting everyone else’s life in jeopardy.”

“Even if you work for a high office in the school and you have power over the students and their futures, there should be some sense of compassion in the conversations and I don’t think that’s the case right now,” he told Annenberg Media.

He expressed further concern regarding overall fairness in the SJACS system, claiming that he had reached out multiple times over a period of approximately two months in an attempt to determine where the case stood. When he did not receive a response, he said he reached out to USC’s Student Affairs Leadership Team to see if they had any updates.

After his inquiry, he said that SJACS called him into the office and began bringing up unrelated accusations against the fraternity from long before the memorial service. He believes SJACS was upset that he had gone to others outside of the office and felt that the introduction of old accusations was vindictive.

He said that he later filed a report to the Office of Professionalism and Ethics about his concerns that SJACS was handling the case in a biased and unprofessional way, but his report was rejected.

When he approached SJACS regarding the length of the process, he said that he was told it was due to the small size of the office and that they want the same officers to handle all cases to maintain uniformity and responsibility. There are currently eight staff members working in the office, according to the SJACS website.

Change may be on the horizon as USG has begun initiating progress in meetings with SJACS to discuss students’ grievances and working to find solutions.

Donna Budar-Turner, director of SJACS, recently met with USG representatives to discuss students’ concerns, said Annie Nguyen, USG committee chair of academic affairs.

“If we’re hearing about students who have negative experiences with SJACS, we really want to find out why and how we can develop solutions with SJACS, hopefully in a collaborative effort,” said Nguyen.

USG also met with Grace Shan, author of the Daily Trojan article “It’s time to put SJACS on trial” to learn more about students’ concerns. Though Nguyen says USG has a good understanding of where the issues lie, she encourages students to submit complaints directly through the “USG Listens” forum. Nguyen acknowledged students’ sentiments and said USG’s main goal is to increase transparency between the student body and both USG and SJACS.

The USC spokeswoman outlined the ongoing review of SJACS policies, noting that Provost Charles F. Zukoski has asked Senior Vice President Beong-Soo Kim, Vice President for Student Affairs Winston Crisp, and Vice Provost for Academic Programs Andrew Stott “to lead a comprehensive evaluation of the policies, offices, and processes used by the university to promote responsible behavior by students and hold them accountable to USC’s community standards of behavior.”

Disclosure: The author of this story is a member of a social fraternity not involved or mentioned in this story.