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The Judicial Experience: Positive and Educational?

By Catherine Feminella, Director of Residence Life Programming, Widener University

Anyone who has ever had to discipline a young adult knows that the experience can sometimes be less than positive for both parties. However, it has been my experience that handling judicial cases and meeting with students to adjudicate the case can be a positive and educational experience. Although the student might enter the office expecting doom, we can turn this experience around and leave the student with a sense of genuine empowerment to make positive and productive decisions. This should be the goal of the hearing officer, if they are motivated to promote a living/learning community among the student body. In order to create one such experience, we need to look at the process and ask why we follow certain procedures. In addition, we must refer to student affairs practices and educational theories. It is also wise to explore that role of this experience in relation to the university community. In exploring these areas, it is my hope that the end result leaves the student feeling good about themselves and the learning that has taken place as a result of this experience. This experience should allow the administrator to have a positive interaction with students and allows him or her to be a positive role model. This is a far cry from the disciplinarian doling out sanctions and the student feeling like a child. In order to further delve into this process and achieve the desired outcomes, one must explore why we meet with students in this manner.

The primary goal in this experience is to make students aware that there are certain fundamental rules and regulations that are necessary in any community. It is our hope that this realization will bloom into an appreciation and acceptance of this goal. In addition, the acceptance of these community standards (student code of conduct) may develop into an intrinsic sense of discipline in which the student feels the need to abide by community standards and cultivate a learning community. A positive meeting results in the student feeling that further infractions should be avoided not because of more severe sanctions, but a realization that these infractions impede on the community environment. So, we use discipline in conjunction with guidance to foster a successful living/learning environment. This result is not achieved without certain essential factors.

In order to achieve the desired result, we must incorporate discipline with guidance and use the experience to re-educate these young adults. We go through this process and offer sanctions for unacceptable behavior. However, we must search for the reason that there was a violation and further explore the experience of the student. This may include probing for academic status, relationship issues, homesickness, social concerns, and issues involving family. This may seem that we wear a dual hat as a counselor and a disciplinarian. However, I am not insinuating that we do this on our own. Often these meetings lead to referrals to health services, counseling center, academic support, and any other department within the university that may provide additional support. At this time, the university officials present that student with a rational for how this behavior is inconsistent with the university community. This may require that we review the policies and the rationale behind them. The official may also assist the student in reaching the conclusion that there are certain fundamental standards that a member of society must subscribe to and abide by with the exclusion of extreme circumstances. In essence, we are appealing to the students’ sense of reason and responsibility in regard to his or her social, ethical, and personal development. In addition, students might be reminded of the learning community that the college experience provides and supports, especially when the student is a resident.

When we remind the student of their place in the university community as well as the community as a whole, he or she can appreciate that irresponsible behavior contributes to a breakdown in the community environment. It is advantageous to the student if you reiterate the benefits of this learning community, to the extent that your college or university subscribes to this method. Davis and Murrell express, “Learning communities are designed to build integration and create a climate of cohesion.” (74) They also state, “Learning communities also provide ideal opportunities for collaboration between student affairs or student development professionals and the faculty. When students see these two areas working together, it provides a model for them to emulate reconciling their own out of class lives with their courses”(75). Using this opportunity to remind students of their role in this experience is often eye opening for them and creates discussion on their own future endeavors and paths. Now that we have established the rationale for the process and the theories affecting this area, we should explore how to be an effective disciplinarian while creating an educational and positive experience for the student.

There are a few essential steps to being effective and still creating a positive experience for the student. First, we need to listen carefully to everything that the student says and encourage him or her to tell you all the details as they recall them. This is really important both for you and the student. The person hearing the case needs to hear the other side of the story to determine if the staff reporting the incident followed procedure and the student needs to express themselves and tell the whole story from his or her own perspective. Next, we need to look for verbal and non-verbal cues that are indicative of the student’s true feelings and attitude toward the situation at hand. Sometimes a student expresses anger, frustration or distress. In rare cases, we can perceive that a student might be stretching the truth regarding the facts of the incident. Therefore, we must be open to observe the student during our meetings. Then, we must clarify any contradictory information while collecting all of the necessary facts of the incident. Students may answer our questions out of order and add things that forward you to a different area of the report. This is why we must clarify any questions we have and concentrate on organizing the details for the benefit of the student as well as yourself. This is also the time that we re-educate the student regarding university policies. Often the student replies that they were unaware of the policy or “didn’t think that this was a big deal.” This is the optimal time to reflect on the student’s responsibility to be aware of the student code of conduct and to ask questions of the proper staff members when they are confused or uncertain of procedures. Sometimes the student may even disclose something that we did not have in our report. This provides us with an opportunity to refer the student to the proper resources on campus. These resources range from academic support to health services. Students may also disclose additional violations and offer us the opportunity to further discuss the student’s personal and ethical development. Finally, remember to avoid getting into heated conversations with a student. If they start to become forceful and aggravated, respect that they have these emotions and ask them to take a moment to collect themselves. This might include stepping outside of your office for a few minutes to regain his or her composure. This is one of the most difficult parts of the process and often requires that we demonstrate how mature adults should conduct themselves when confronted with frustration or anger. Pascarella believed that, “student learning and development are affected directly by a student’s interaction with faculty and peers and by the student’s quality of effort.” (Davis, 19) So, I wouldn’t underestimate the affects of being a positive role model. Although there are always exceptions to the rule, these steps are extremely helpful in being effective and offering the student the opportunity to express their feelings and concerns regarding the incident. These steps also increase our ability to have the student address their own social, ethical, and personal development. In addition, academics are often the next area of focus. (ACPA)

Once we have explored the student’s rationale for their conduct, we must discuss their needs and how these needs either disrupt or contribute this environment. Blimling, Whitt, and Associates refer to explore this area in their work, Good Practice in Student Affairs: Principles to Foster Student Learning. They assert, “Living in a diverse community requires the development and practice of respect for others and theory values, civility, responsibility for one’s own conduct, equal consideration and treatment of others, tolerance, and the ability to mediate conflicts.”(49) In my experience, this is certainly a major goal of the university experience. As positive role models, we must take this goal and create this experience through discipline and guidance. However, our choice of discipline should allow the student to develop and grow into a responsible contributing member of society. We can do this by offering the student the opportunity to complete compensatory service hours in which they provide a needed service and the university or community completes their objectives. It is our hope that this experience may enhance the ethical development of our students. Our student codes of conduct outline the students’ rights, duties, and responsible citizenship, but service to their community reinforces our goal to build a students character and integrity. This brings us to explore Chickering’s Seventh Vector of Identity, integrity. The writers of the above named work assert that this vector represents the culmination of student development. Regarding the topic of character development, the authors assert, “It is fostered through an educational environment that clearly transmits core values and behavioral standards, provides visible role models, helps students reflect and clarify values, gives students practical opportunities to act on their convictions and beliefs, and provides a caring, supportive community” (65). It has been my experience that judicial meetings with students provide the opportunity to explore these areas and ask probing questions. By this, I mean that we ask questions of our students that do not necessarily give them an answer to a problem, but help them arrive at the solution on their own. This is much more effective and more readily received by the student. In doing this, we empower him or her to make ethical and responsible decisions that affect them personally as well as their community. What can be better than being part of this growth experience and seeing the student blossom in front of your eyes? We must set expectations for this experience so that we are challenged along side the student to create the best experience possible for all parties involved.

In looking at the process of meeting with students and dealing with discipline, I have seen positive outcomes result from these interactions. I think it is truly important to realize that the student usually enters our office as a result of a negative experience. However, we can create a positive and educational experience that results in the development of our students, sometimes beyond our expectations. We must also acknowledge that we can not have this experience with every student, as some scenarios are too sever to warrant his or her ability to remain in school. Nonetheless, it has been my experience that every day is an opportunity to influence students and assist them in their endeavors. Knowing that we may have contributed to our students developing into productive members of society who contribute great things to their communities makes the process worthwhile.

About the Author

Catherine Feminella is currently the Director of Residence Life Programming at Widener University’s main campus. She has experience in Residence Life both as a Resident Assistant as well as a Graduate Area Coordinator. In addition, Catherine received her Masters of Education with a concentration in English and Language Arts from Widener University.


  1. NASPA - National Association of Student Personnel Administrators
    1875 Connecticut Avenue, N.W.
    Suite 418
    Washington, DC 20009-5728
    (202) 265-7500
    Website: www.naspa.org

  2. ACPA – America College Personnel Association
    One Dupont Circle, N.W. Suite 300
    National Center for Higher Education
    Washington, D.C. 20036-1110
    Website: www.acpa.nche.edu


  • Blimling, Gregory S., and Elizabeth J. Whitt and Associates. Good Practice in Student Affairs: Principles to Foster Student Learning. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1999.
  • Davis, Todd M., and Patricia Hillman Murrell. 1993. Turning Teaching Into Learning: The Role Of Student Responsibility in the Collegiate Experience. ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Report No. 8. Washington, D.C.: The George Washington University, School of Education and Human Development.