The investigation process: An honor violation accusation

Jordan Cohen

When a member of the Washington and Lee community suspects an honor violation, they are encouraged — but not required — by the White Book to report the action in question to the president of the Executive Committee. In most cases, this is how a suspected honor violation ends up in front of Mason Grist.

Grist, a sophomore and a native of Lexington, sets the investigative process in motion. He alerts Paul Judge, the head Hearing Advisor, so that he may appoint an advocate to the investigative team. Grist then chooses a member of the Executive Committee, usually one who has had experience with the investigative process, to serve on the team.

“If it’s at the beginning of the year, I’ll probably have an EC member who’s been on the EC before do it, just because if you’ve never seen an investigation before you don’t really know how to do it,” Grist said.

Accompanying the hearing advisor and EC member on the investigative team is a student chosen from the student body at large.

The EC member on the investigative team, in consultation with Grist, usually calls on upperclassmen and people who have shown themselves to be leaders of the community, Grist said. Grist says when picking a student member of the investigative team, he and his fellow EC member try to ensure diversity of grade and gender within the team itself.

“We pick people who we think are pretty outstanding members of the community who are going to be professional in the process,” Grist said.

The aim of a student appointment, according to Grist, is to balance perspectives among the investigative team.

“They don’t really know what an investigation should look like, so they can sort of bring that critical outside perspective to the investigation,” Grist said.

“Fact-finding Mission”

Next comes what Sophomore Representative Mary Page Welch calls the “fact-finding mission.”

Beginning with the accuser, the investigative team interviews those who may be involved with the alleged violation. Welch said the goal of these interviews is to “ask as many questions as possible so you know what happened, but also the greater circumstances going on.”

After the accuser is interviewed, the investigative team may interview others linked to the potential violation. This could be anyone with knowledge of the violation itself or of circumstances surrounding the violation (i.e. another student in a class in which a test was cheated on, or a professor).   To ensure the confidentiality of the the accused, with the exception of interviews with the accuser, the investigative team takes care to not reveal the identity of the accused during the interview process.

But despite the team’s best efforts to keep the details of the investigation confidential, sometimes those interviewed during the process have picked up information from friends or peers.

“It’s a small school,” Welch said. “Sometimes it gets leaked or they find out, but we try to keep that as confidential as possible.”

During the interview process, the investigative team also collects evidence, which is compiled for presentation to the Executive Committee. Evidence may include tests, course syllabi, and supplemental materials from a class where a violation may have taken place.

Once all interviews are completed and evidence is gathered, the investigative team compiles a report.

“We compile [the report] and then I’ll read through all of them to make sure the facts are accurate, make additions, change things,” Welch said. “You do that as a team, and everyone agrees that this is a fair representation of what we interviewed and what we heard.”

Before the compiled evidence can be presented to the EC, the investigative team redacts any information that could reveal the identity of the accused. The team then walks the EC through their findings. The entire investigation process can take anywhere from one to three weeks.

Once all information has been presented, the EC asks the investigative team questions about the evidence and testimony they’ve just seen and heard. Once questions have been asked, the investigative team makes their recommendation as to whether there should be a closed trial. That marks the end of the investigative team’s involvement in the process.

Then comes the decision.

The Decision

“The last job of the investigation team is to give a recommendation to the EC on whether they feel there is sufficient evidence that an honor violation may have occurred” said Welch.

Deliberation begins after the investigative team leaves. Although the EC at large does not know the identity of the accused, the president, who presides over the process, knows the entire time.  Despite knowing the accused’s name, Grist is expected to remain impartial.

“The president sort of acts as a mediator essentially,” Grist said. “Because knowing the real name or not knowing the real name is not going to influence the president’s decision. If it did then I think the president would probably recuse him or herself before that time anyway.”

When deciding whether or not to advance to a closed hearing, Grist said the EC considers two qualifications: whether a violation may have occurred, and whether significant evidence exists.

Depending on whether these standards are met, the EC will either call for a closed hearing or drop the matter entirely. Sometimes, Welch said, the student will not even know that an investigation took place. If the matter is dropped, the documents are kept until the same term the following calendar year, at which time they are destroyed.

“Clearly sometimes the professor lets the student know, and in that case we follow up with the student and say the matter has been dropped,” Welch said.