Changing Penn State's "Code of Conduct"

Changing Penn State's "Code of Conduct"

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Abigail Loviscky started this petition to Penn State University and

Penn State’s Code of Conduct currently has two clauses dedicated to harassment: sexual harassment (2) and harassment (3). In regards to verbal harassment, Penn State cites “... other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature…” qualifies as sexual harassment and is a violation of the Code of Conduct. Within the clause of harassment, Penn State defines harassment as “behavior consisting of physical or verbal conduct that is sufficiently severe or pervasive such that it threatens or substantially interferes with an individual’s employment, education or access to University programs, activities or opportunities and such conduct would detrimentally affect a reasonable person under the same circumstances.” It “furthers” this definition by adding that “verbal or physical attacks, stalking, graphic or written statements, electronic exploitation, threats, or slurs” also qualify as harassment. After providing this initial definition, Penn State goes on to give a list of “qualifiers” for harassment that restrict the definition first proposed at the beginning of the clause. These qualifiers include: “the totality of the particular circumstances, including the nature, frequency and duration of the conduct in question, the location and context in which it occurs, and the status of the individuals involved”. This brings to one’s attention a very important question: can a singular instance be considered harassment? According to Title 18 Chapter 27 Section 2709 of Pennsylvania law, it can be. Pennsylvania law says that one instance of verbal communication can be considered harassment when the communication is “lewd, lascivious, threatening, or obscene words, language, drawings, or caricatures”. The definitions of lewd and lascivious pertain directly to sexual intent, so one could interpret this clause as protecting specifically against sexual harassment. However, the second definition of the word obscene states that it can be used to describe anything “offensive to moral principles”. If this clause covers “obscene” language, can one infer that racial slurs fit into this qualification of harassment? My interpretation of this clause is that yes, this clause does imply that one communication of a racial slur can be considered harassment. Does Penn State’s Code of Conduct align with this clause? Not necessarily. Although it does include racial slurs as harassment, it creates a loophole with the qualifying factors it lists further in the clause by saying that even if one of the many forms of harassment defined occur, it must also meet a standard of qualifiers not explicitly defined in the clause, meaning the interpretation of these qualifiers would be left to whatever University official is assigned to “investigate” the harassment. 

I demand that Penn State’s Code of Conduct is revised to include a separate clause for racial harassment the way there is a separate clause for sexual harassment. There are several Codes of Conduct that Penn State could reference in revising their definition of harassment. The U.S. Department of State has a Code of Conduct that includes racial slurs as harassment without listing qualifiers that restrict when a racial slur institutes harassment. The U.S. Department of State includes an initial definition of harassment similar to that of Penn State’s. However, the U.S. Department of State does not list the qualifiers of “the totality of the particular circumstances, including the nature, frequency and duration of the conduct in question, the location and context in which it occurs, and the status of the individuals involved”. The U.S. Department of State also provides a list of examples that constitute harassment. Some of the examples provided include: “racial epithets, ‘jokes,’ offensive or derogatory comments, or other verbal or physical conduct based on an individual’s race/color, ethnic slurs, workplace graffiti, or other offensive conduct directed towards an individual’s birthplace, ethnicity, culture, or foreign accent, verbal or physical abuse, ‘joke’ or offensive comments based on an individual’s age, gender, disability, or sexual orientation”. If the U.S Department of State constitutes all of these examples as harassment, and doesn’t specify that they must meet an additional set of qualifiers, why does Penn State’s Code of Conduct include these qualifiers? Another resource that Penn State could use as guidance is the definition of racial harassment outlined in the Ontario Human Rights Code by the Ontario Human Rights Commission. The Commission provides an incredibly thorough definition of racial harassment, and one that I think Penn State could really use. Some of the highlights from OHRC’s definition of racial harassment include: “Racial harassment means that someone is bothering you, threatening you or treating you unfairly because of your perceived: race, colour, ancestry, place of origin, ethnic origin, creed, citizenship,”, “Racial harassment can happen when someone where you work, live or get a service: makes racial slurs or “jokes”, makes fun of you or insults you because of your racial identity, posts cartoons or pictures, in a workplace, school or housing space, that degrade persons of a particular racial group, calls you names because of your race, colour, citizenship, place of origin, ancestry, ethnic background or creed,”, “Sometimes racial harassment doesn’t even involve words or actions directly related to your race. It may just be that someone is unfairly singling you out for humiliating treatment because of your background.”

Penn State is doing the entire community a disservice by restricting its definition of harassment, and more specifically, its lack of definition of racial harassment. The current Code of Conduct was designed to allow students, faculty, and staff to perpetrate acts of racial harassment with zero accountability. If the University ever expects itself to be a truly inclusive and anti-racist environment it must redesign itself to target the perpetrators of racial harassment instead of protecting them. Ideally, the University must create a new clause within the Code of Conduct that fully addresses racial harassment in hopes of actually decreasing the prevalence of this harassment instead of protecting its perpetrators. Penn State must also eliminate the secondary “qualifying” factors of harassment outlined in clause three of the Code of Conduct.

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