EDITORIAL BOARD: Pomona’s disciplinary system is ‘educational.’ Until it isn’t

How can you tell we’re back on campus? Bikes, scooters and skateboards are cruising down Sixth Street. Athletes are back in competition. 7C Facebook groups are bustling with minifridges and mattress pads. And once again, the Pomona College administration is making unilateral decisions which harm its most vulnerable students, provoking the dismay of its own community.

Perhaps it’s not surprising that 17 months after first generation and low-income students were left to fend for themselves after Pomona rejected many of their petitions to stay on campus, the resumption of campus life almost immediately brought forth a similar case of the school yanking support from a student who needed it.

We’re of course referring to Drew “Ziggy” Carter PO ’22, a transfer student, Mellon Mays fellow and Pell recipient looking to experience his first semester in person in Claremont. Let in by a roommate after his request to move in early was rejected, according to a letter he shared on Twitter, Carter was moving his belongings into a residence hall on August 16 and 17 when a staff member discovered him. Ten days later, he was suspended for the entire fall semester and told to leave campus.

Pomona’s walk and its talk are astoundingly different when it comes to this case. Its disciplinary policies have gone through many changes in recent years to make procedures more equitable and holistic, a process student leaders have admirably pushed forward.

Flipping through the student handbook, you’ll find that the college’s welfare requires “genuine community interaction and respect for the rights of others.” That disciplinary measures should take into account the “well-being of the respondent and well-being of the entire college community.” That Pomona aims for an “educational process that allows for students in violation of the Student Code to think about their actions, the impact of those actions on the community, and prevention of future code violations.”

And then there’s this action.

In a bewildering series of Twitter replies to a Houston higher education reporter — the only public statement the college has made on this case, despite considerable outcry both on campus and around the country — Pomona stated the importance of students’ compliance with safety instructions during a pandemic, laid out its structure for handling student affairs violations and promised it reviews “potential options and assistance” after a suspension and to “support the individual’s return to our community.”

How holistic and thorough could this process really have been?

How restorative can this justice be when the student in question isn’t even allowed to participate in the community he is supposed to be learning how to engage with and think about? And how can “potential options and assistance” ever measure up to the housing, food and care that low-income students need in a new place far from home? If safety is the goal, what about his?

In case it wasn’t abundantly clear, a full-semester suspension for a residential violation is absurdly disproportional. We can’t imagine this happening at another institution, particularly during a pandemic where travel and relocation put people at a greater risk both of spreading and contracting the disease.

COVID-19 seems to have been a particular rationale for the harshness of the decision, but we don’t think Pomona should be able to pick and choose when it uses public health conditions as cause for concern.

Take, for example, the un-distanced, maskless mass gathering of the school’s largest-ever first-year class, purely for a traditional photo op, or for that matter walk into Frary Dining Hall at 12:30 p.m. any day of the week and consider whether it looks like safety is really the first priority. 

If this administration can’t prove it’s taking student health and safety seriously in every relevant instance, it shouldn’t have the audacity to claim a higher standard for a single student.

We should expect better from a group of capable, hardworking student affairs leaders — but, at this point, we’ve learned not to.

Time and time again, Pomona’s stated commitment to diversity and access has been tested by instances in which the school lets students and organizers down, failing to keep commitments on financial support and educational resources.

Students mess up, and disciplinary measures are part of the process. But suspending a student for moving in early — particularly a FLI student of color —  is nothing but punitive. If our community is really going to remain healthy and take care of itself the way that’s supposedly intended, then everyone must hold themselves accountable for the safety of those around them. That includes those with the most power.

Carter deserves a meaningful appeal with student involvement and an outcome that actually reconciles the wrongdoing and allows everyone to move forward.

Pomona’s administration has a choice to make. It can pretend this didn’t happen and ignore the serious blow to our tenets of trust, shared governance and mutual respect. Or, it can recognize the situation for what it is, start a real conversation and show we’re capable of doing better than this.

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