‘We’re going in blind’: Resident assistants sound alarm on winter quarter

Dec. 22, 2020, 8:25 p.m.

As winter quarter approaches, Stanford is preparing to welcome frosh, sophomores and new transfers to campus at a time when coronavirus cases are surging and intensive care units are reaching capacity. While most academic instruction will remain remote, around 4,000 undergraduates are expected to move into campus housing by the end of January.

But resident assistants (RAs) are raising concerns that their two-week virtual training and contradictory guidance from the University are leaving them underprepared to support student health and well-being during an already unpredictable winter quarter. 

While RAs are typically required to enroll in a class during the spring quarter prior to their appointment and finish training in the lead-up to fall quarter, this year’s cohort of RAs never received the spring or fall training. (In August, the University revoked positions for the majority of its 275 on-campus student staff for the fall quarter.) Their training was instead delivered remotely during five sessions in the first two weeks of December. 

“I don’t feel prepared to undertake the role,” said Dan ’21, a winter quarter RA. Although he served as an RA last year, Dan said this year’s training left him with more questions than answers. This portrait of student staff concerns is based on eight interviews with current and former RAs, who requested anonymity to speak frankly on issues pertaining to training and internal discussions. (Some RAs have been given first-name pseudonyms to improve readability.)

During the training period, RAs were introduced to Stanford protocols on health and safety, the Campus Compact, mandatory reporting, sexual assault prevention and mental health. The training was hosted asynchronously on Canvas and supplemented by synchronous “check-in” sessions held by Residential Education (ResEd) staff.

“There were a lot of articles and videos but it all felt superficial,” Ryan ’21, an RA for an all-frosh dorm, told The Daily. “If a resident is at my door at three in the morning crying, do I let them in my room? Do we go on a walk?” he asked, appealing for clear and pragmatic guidance.

Lana ’22, a first-time RA, described a case study from training in which a distressed female student reported to a student staff member a sexual interaction that lacked consent. The exercise was meant to inform RAs about sexual violence and Title IX guidelines, but confusion set in when students asked residence deans how they should deal with the COVID-19 violations related to the incident.

Two residence deans reportedly told RAs that they were unsure whether they needed to report the gathering in this case. But another RA who was briefed on the same case study says he was told by his residence dean that student staff would need to report the gathering to the Dean of Students Office.

“You’ll need to report it but the COVID violation won’t go very far,” a residence dean reportedly told Dan. Despite a substantial number of reported Campus Compact violations in the fall quarter, only a handful made their way to the Community Review Panel, which is charged with reviewing violations and recommending punishment. Most violations were addressed in follow-up conversations with students. 

While the Campus Compact did not initially provide protection for witnesses or victims of sexual violence, Stanford revised the policy in September to grant amnesty following student and faculty protest. 

Julia Paris ’21 and Maia Brockbank ’21, co-directors of sexual violence prevention for the Associated Students of Stanford University (ASSU), told The Daily that they were frustrated that the University has not been proactive in notifying staff of amnesty for survivors of sexual violence.

“It’s on the Stanford administration to invest resources up front to make sure that at every point of access, everyone understands what the right thing to do is and that’s not happening right now,” Paris said, adding that “trauma victims shouldn’t be tasked with dealing with conflicting information.”

Brockbank cited already low reporting rates of sexual violence as a result of the pandemic and said that “it is terrifying that these numbers could be diminished even more” if survivors think they will be penalized for coming forward.

Student Affairs spokesperson Pat Harris told The Daily that “Stanford will not impose consequences for COVID-19 health and safety violations, including those in the Campus Compact, on anyone who reports experiencing sexual violence” or “witnesses who aid any report of sexual violence.” Harris declined to comment on reports that some residence deans were unaware of the amnesty policy and actions the University is taking to address any contradictory guidance.

The RAs The Daily spoke to hypothesized that the spread of this inaccurate information would not only have a chilling effect on reports of sexual violence, but would also hinder RAs’ ability to build relationships based on trust with their residents — an essential aspect of their role.

“I am concerned it might dissuade students from seeking help or trusting staff to connect them to the resources they need,” Dan said. “Students won’t feel comfortable coming to us whether it is a Title IX or any other concern if they feel we will be punitive and report them.”

In addition to contradictory information regarding sexual violence protocols, RAs said that while they are supportive of the public health restrictions, they are concerned about exacerbated mental health issues. Since the start of the pandemic, Stanford students have reported increased stress and anxiety as a result of decreased social interaction.

“I don’t think we’re prepared to see the mental toll winter quarter will have on our residents,” Dan said. 

Some RAs reported that their training hardly addressed helping students navigate the loneliness or isolation they may experience as a result of coronavirus restrictions. 

ResEd encouraged residential student staff to plan virtual programming and conduct regular wellness checks by taking socially distanced walks with residents in the mental health portion of the online training, RAs told The Daily.

But contradicting the Canvas module, RAs were later told at a synchronous session with ResEd staff that the University is limiting outside masked gatherings to individuals within one’s household pod, which would severely hamper communication between student staff and residents in-person. (Academic advising directors later confirmed at a town hall that “socializing with individuals outside your ‘household’” would not be permitted, even after students complete a mandatory two-week quarantine.)

RAs said they expect alcohol consumption among first-years to skyrocket, even with restrictions on gatherings. A 2019 report found that “high risk” alcohol-related behavior among Stanford frosh had tripled since 2011.

The University is reportedly urging student staff and residential fellows to suspend the unofficial “open door policy” — which has permitted underage drinking in residential halls if staff are made aware of where and when alcohol consumption is occurring — due to COVID-19 concerns, according to the RAs.

“I am genuinely stressed that without the open door policy, there will be a gathering and [a resident] will go unconscious and need to be transported, but the others won’t go to an RA because they’re scared of being reported,” Ryan said.   

Student Affairs declined to comment on the open door policy during the winter quarter and RA concerns related to student health. 

Dan added that while Stanford does need to take steps to maintain the health of students, the University also needed to “promote other ways to foster community because the new policies will inhibit a lot of communication” among residents and RAs. 

The conflicting information is representative of a broader issue related to the flow of information from a central group of University administrators to departments and programs, according to the RAs.

When news broke that Stanford was proceeding with its plan to provide on-campus housing to first-years and sophomores, RAs said that it appeared ResEd was unaware of the announcement and unable to answer their questions. Although move-in day is rapidly approaching, RAs said their questions have yet to be answered. 

Harris wrote that the University is answering questions from residential student staff and invites “student staff to ask additional questions at any time via an online form available to them throughout the year.” ResEd will also be offering “on-going” RA training during the winter quarter to support the “realities that student staff members are experiencing,” she added.

Some RAs also said their ranks are dwindling. In one instance, seven out of eight co-staff left their posts. Other RAs report that they still do not know the names of the staff on their team, delaying planning efforts.

“My plan at this point is to show up and see what happens because there has almost been no information,” Ryan said.

Despite the contradictory guidance, RAs said that ResEd staff and community coordinators are not the source of the issue and are doing their best to accommodate student staff despite being “blindsided” by Stanford’s policies.

Residential student staff will arrive on campus on Jan. 2 and 3, before welcoming undergraduates with special circumstances on Jan. 4 to 9. Undergraduates without special circumstances are scheduled to move in at the end of the second week of winter quarter. The on-campus student population is expected to increase from 6,000 in the fall quarter to around 10,000 in the winter quarter.

Contact Cameron Ehsan at cehsan ‘at’ stanford.edu

Cameron Ehsan is a junior at Stanford studying neurobiology. He served as a news editor and newsroom development director for Vol. 261 and was the Vol. 260 winter managing editor.

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