November 8, 2020

Students Should Feel Comfortable Reporting Health Pact Violations

The University’s response to UCAIR reports is non-punitive, and right now, the UCAIR system is the best way to keep our community safe.

Little information is publicly available about the University of Chicago Accident Incident Reporting (UCAIR) system—the University's primary vehicle for tracking Health Pact violations—raising several important questions. How does the University investigate UCAIR reports? Does the administration follow up on every case reported to them through UCAIR? How are students punished for violating the Health Pact? As a new College Council Representative for the Class of 2022, I organized a meeting between myself, representatives Kevin Yan (‘21) and Julia Brestovitskiy (‘24), and Stephen Scott, director of the Office of College Community Standards (OCCS). Scott provided insight into the backend of the UCAIR COVID-19 reporting system. Based on that meeting, I can soundly conclude that students should feel comfortable filing reports on suspected and confirmed Health Pact violations. This platform encourages safe and necessary social engagement amongst students. The action taken by administrators in response to UCAIR reports is non-punitive, and reporting these cases is the best mechanism to responsibly enforce the Health Pact and maintain a hybrid learning environment.

As Scott told us, during a normal year the OCCS handles cases of social and academic misconduct, leave of absence requests, and withdrawals from the University. This year, OCCS is also in charge of investigating and adjudicating Health Pact violations. Since the start of O-Week, 184 College students have been reported via the UCAIR system. The majority of those students live in campus housing; their investigations are conducted in part by Housing & Residence Life (HRL). Of the students living off-campus, 24 were issued warnings while 13 were investigated but ultimately not given warnings. OCCS took no action against 28 students, either because investigators could not identify the violator from the report, or because the incident clearly did not breach the Health Pact. Most reports were of first-year students violating gathering, distancing, and personal protective equipment (PPE) guidelines. The University has only removed four students from on-campus housing due to reports through the UCAIR system; those students’ residency requirements have been waived or deferred. No students have lost their access to campus due to Health Pact violations.

One theme was consistent in our meeting with Scott: OCCS does not wish to punish students. As Scott explained, “we owe students an opportunity to correct their behavior. We want them to give us confidence that they understand the importance of following the Health Pact. [The administration] knows that college students are designed to be social, and we are the ones that invited students back to campus, where social interaction is inevitable.”

Members of the Office of Environmental Health and Safety review UCAIR reports daily. “If someone reports a party on Friday night or Saturday, it reaches our office by end of day Tuesday at the latest,” Scott said. OCCS handles all College student reports outside of the dorms; reports from inside the dorms are sent on to HRL.

OCCS utilizes a “preponderance of the evidence” standard in adjudicating UCAIR reports. If, based on the information provided in a UCAIR report, it does not appear likely that a Health Pact violation occurred, OCCS will send an informal email to the alleged violator notifying them that a report was filed with UCAIR. In these cases, Scott said, “We’re not taking any disciplinary action; we just want to remind you of the Health Pact.” If it is more likely than not that a Health Pact violation occurred, OCCS will arrange a meeting with the alleged violator.

According to Scott, OCCS will not take any disciplinary action against a student without first discussing the allegation in a meeting. If, after a meeting, OCCS finds a Health Pact violation likely occurred, that student will be issued a “final warning.” Scott clarified: “We use a two-strike system. If, after one ‘likely’ finding, a student is reported again, and we find a second ‘likely’ violation, we will ban that student’s access to campus. Our absolute last scenario is anything affecting educational access, like probation, suspension, or expulsion. That will only be used in cases of repeated, severe cases that violate common-sense protections or demonstrate a sheer disregard for the Health Pact.”

The University will consider extenuating circumstances or mitigating factors in adjudicating a report. “We’ve had cases where someone submitted a report with pictures of a large group of guys drinking outside with each other. We identified them, talked to them, and determined they all lived with each other, so no action was taken.” While OCCS cannot mandate testing, investigators will consider whether students receive regular testing. “What we’re really looking for is some due diligence or respect for the Health Pact. Five friends having dinner in an apartment isn’t going to trigger an investigation. If you have people over and you’re trying to distance or have PPE, we’re not going to take action.”

Students may wonder what information is important to include when reporting a Health Pact violation, and if infrastructure exists to filter out false reports. Scott stressed that OCCS looks into and acts on every report, even if it is anonymous (as the vast majority are). “If there’s an off-campus report, a name is the best information someone can provide. We can also search University residential data to cross-match names to addresses. Still, we need a unit number to make sure we have the right individuals.” When asked if there are any safeguards against false reporting, Scott said that meeting with students weeds out these instances. “We had an instance where someone’s ex, who isn’t a UChicago student, filed six UCAIR reports against a student. We talked to the student, and clearly, no action was taken.”

What does all this mean for students through the rest of the school year? The University’s non-punitive approach to Health Pact violations should not be seen as a free pass to disobey guidelines; repeat violators will lose their access to campus. Meanwhile, coronavirus cases are on the rise nationally and in Chicago, a trend that will likely continue through the winter. While Provost Ka Yee Lee announced on October 29 that UChicago will continue its hybrid model, the continuation of in-person instruction is contingent on students following University guidelines. One sizable gathering can pass the virus on to a multitude of individuals. If you observe such a group, you should feel comfortable filing a UCAIR report. It won’t result in punitive action against the students involved—instead, it will merely augment the University’s ability to contact trace, ensure that everyone at the gathering is negative for COVID-19, and encourage safe social habits.

Allen Abbott is a third-year in the College and a Student Government representative for the Class of 2022.