Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
May 26, 2020

RAs report mistreatment under Residential Life

By KATY WILNER | May 3, 2020

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COURTESY OF RUDY MALCOM

According to many RAs, RDs need to be better held accountable.

In March of 2018, The News-Letter reported that Residential Advisors (RA) on financial aid were paying the same out-of-pocket costs — which include tuition and room and board — as they would have been without their position. 

RAs revealed that they were given room and board via a grant, which was partially or totally subtracted from their Hopkins financial aid packages. This meant that RAs who were receiving financial aid greater than the cost of room and board were essentially working without pay.

Several months later, The Office of Residential Life announced that it had revised its RA contract for the 2019-20 academic year, which included an annual stipend of $5,100 to be paid in semi-monthly installments. 

However, the RA manual now states that RAs are unable to speak directly to media outlets without permission from their supervisors. 

This year, seven RAs broke this rule to inform The News-Letter of ongoing systematic issues within Residential Life. Some students’ identities will remain anonymous, as The News-Letter offers anonymity to individuals who are at risk of losing their job by disclosing information.

With their jobs on the line, these students reported insufficient training and inappropriate leadership. Their concerns, they said, continuously went unheard.

An Appeal for Change 

Junior Katie Jackson became a RA as a sophomore. In an interview with The News-Letter, she explained that she was inspired to join Residential Life for the sense of community it provided.

“In the same way people join sororities looking for friends, the RA community is another really tight-knit friend group that you can just walk into,” she said. 

In her first year of work, Jackson was repeatedly placed in situations where she felt unsafe and uncomfortable. She told The News-Letter that her unease stemmed from having to console residents who were told that if they were having issues, they should reach out to Jackson, even if she wasn’t on duty.

According to protocol, RAs are supposed to contact a Residence Director (RD) if they are in a situation where they need additional help. RDs, who are immediate supervisors to RAs, provide on-call emergency services for both RAs and residents.

COURTESY OF MARVIS GUTIERREZ

Many RAs turn to other RAs for help rather than contacting their direct supervisors. 


“I had to quit a lot of my clubs — including one that I was on the board of — just because I felt like I could never walk away from my room because [a] resident would need me 24/7 and would threaten me if I wasn’t there,” Jackson said.

As a sophomore, Jackson found herself in this kind of situation when a resident threatened her with a weapon. She called her RD and explained what was happening, but received no assistance. Jackson relayed that the RD told her there was nothing that could be done unless Jackson had actually seen the weapon or had proof of it. 

Jackson said that she had to rely on other RAs for support and protection instead of her supervisor. Although she would file an official communication report every time an incident occurred, she got the most results from texting fellow RAs for help — not her supervisor. Jackson will not be reapplying to be a RA next semester.

RAs reported that stories of being ignored by RDs are common. Indu Radhakrishnan, who graduated in 2019, created a report titled “An Appeal for Change,” which shed light on inappropriate RD conduct, as well as a wide array of issues within Residential Life.

Radhakrishnan, who was a RA during her junior and senior years, centered her report around a focus group she organized in early May 2019. The group was composed of nine RAs who provided anecdotal evidence about issues within the department, as well as recommendations for Residential Life protocols.

The Appeal begins with a word cloud highlighting RA responses to the prompt “Describe The Office of Residential Life’s treatment of you.” Some answers included “demeaning,” “unprofessional,” “dismissive” and “inappropriate.”

One of Radhakrishnan’s first recommendations was for Residential Life to establish severe consequences if a RD refuses to assist with a situation when a RA requests their presence, claiming that it is a fireable offense. The appeal cites stories about RDs not picking up their phones when RAs called for help, along with several occasions when RDs on call refused to assist a RA who felt physically unsafe.

In an interview with The News-Letter, Radhakrishnan noted that when she first became a RA, her RD was extremely competent and supportive. However, she said her RD during her senior year was uninterested in the work and was emotionally unable to aid the RAs.

“My RD my second year actively told us that they did not want to be there and that they were looking for other jobs,” she said. “They blamed us for having a ‘negative’ attitude and cried at a few of our staff meetings.”

In her Appeal, she quoted a RA who said, “No one has a professional relationship with RDs... because they’re not professional.” Several RAs she interviewed noted that their supervisors watched Netflix during business hours, talked negatively about RAs to other RAs and engaged in conversations with residents while visibly intoxicated.

Last year, Jackson saw a visibly drunk RD interacting with one of her residents in the AMR courtyard and reported this incident. She stated that the RD was not reprimanded and no further action was taken, aside from the RD blocking Jackson on Instagram.

Additionally, according to Radhakrishnan, there were two instances in recent history where RDs were accused of sexual misconduct. One RD has been fired and the other has quit. Radhakrishnan relayed that there were also several incidents where RDs would match with students on dating apps. The University has since implemented a new Personal Relationships Policy, which strictly prohibits romantic or sexual relationships between faculty members and undergraduate students.

“The lines were a little bit less clear in my time,” Radhakrishnan said. “Hopefully, those policies have been enforced more rigorously, but this was a big problem.” 

Radhakrishnan submitted the Appeal to then-Director of Residential Life Allison Avolio. The current Director of Residential Life, Jessica Kupper, explained that Avolio had a number of follow-up conversations with professional staff and student staff after receiving the report. 

In an email to The News-Letter, Kupper wrote that Residential Life values the information that was provided and has used it to help guide new initiatives.

“In addition to having used the feedback from several years ago, we encourage staff to talk with us about their experiences, and work to support them in their role as RAs,” she wrote.

The Value of an RA

RAs continue to express the need for training to be further developed to better serve both their own and their residents’ needs. In an interview with The News-Letter, one RA revealed that her biggest issue with Residential Life this year was the lack of training and protocol in dealing with the death of a student. She explained that it was incredibly difficult to support her residents because she was mourning herself.

“There was a profound sense of loss, especially among first-years,” she said. “It was a shock — especially in the way that Residential Life decided to go about telling the students.” 

This RA explained that after the death of a freshman this year, Residential Life leaders brought hundreds of students in AMR II into the BlueJay and Social Lounges in the late hours of the night. Then, Residential Life leaders told the students that a freshman had passed away but did not disclose who it was.

“This all happened at like 1 a.m. Some students wanted to talk until 4 a.m. about how they were feeling, and we couldn’t tell them who the student [who passed away] was,” she said. 

She said that Kupper and the RDs on call asked RAs to take note of residents who needed counseling and further support from the University. She added that many of the students she talked to did not necessarily want counseling, but needed a RA or just a friend to talk to. Additionally, she relayed that RAs were not offered this same sense of support.

This RA referenced a subsection of “The Appeal for Change,” which states that after initial crisis response, RAs should not be responsible for the long-term mental, emotional or physical stability of other students.

“The value of an RA in that situation is to recognize that the crisis doesn't end overnight. They end much later than I think professional staff realizes,” she said. “If we can’t hand over long-term situations, we’re stuck being a full time student, as well as being everything to a resident. And that’s just a really hard position to be in.” 

In reflection, the RA revealed that in no way did she believe she had had the necessary training to deal with this type of situation.

In an interview with The News-Letter, senior Jonathan Mo, who has been a RA for two years, explained that one of the biggest difficulties with training is the short time frame.

“It’s kind of a sort of a long shot to say that you’re supposed to train on everything as a RA within two weeks, and I do think a lot of training does come on the job. That being said, my second year of training was completely inadequate, which is obviously an issue,” he said.

Another RA, currently mourning the loss of a former resident, said that there was no kind of training that could have sufficiently prepared her for dealing with a student’s death. 

“How much training can really prepare you for something like this?” she said. “No matter what information we get, it's just really different actually feeling and going through this.” 

She explained that the University and members of Residential Life reached out to her to make sure she was okay. She was contacted by her RD as well as Student Outreach and Support with information about available resources. This RA appreciated the personal messages, stating that in a time of loss, small gestures, even if they are surface-level, are impactful.

The Future of Residential Life

After the University announced that classes would be held remotely due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, many RAs were unsure of how their roles as student leaders would change. Like other students who lived in University housing, RAs were told to leave campus but that they would still be paid for their remote work. However, they were not refunded room and board because technically these fees were waived rather than paid.

In an interview with The News-Letter, one RA expressed that by not refunding RAs, financial inequities — which had been previously addressed with the new compensation plan — were once again a problem. 

This RA, who receives financial aid from both the government and from Hopkins, stated that having access to free housing and meals was a big reason why she applied to be a RA. She is actively asking for further compensation, though the University is adamant, she said, about not refunding RAs.

Instead of a refund, she is appealing for further financial aid in the form of an emergency grant. She explained that this is a difficult process because she not only doesn’t know how much to ask for, but she is also aware that each grant is decided on a case by case basis.

“It’s funny because they sent me an email that said, ‘Wow, your appeal got approved,’ and they gave me a tenth of what I asked for,” she said. “It really isn't equitable in the sense that not everyone is getting the same treatment.”

Other RAs, who also rely on the job for housing, meals and the stipend, hope that the RA program is left intact this upcoming semester, even if it has to be done remotely.

One RA explained that her work allows students to form a community when they begin their college career, and this is vital even during remote learning.

“The RA position itself is very valuable. Even if it is online, we need to still do this because the RA role is to foster a community within a group of students,” she said. “And that's something that you can continue to do, even if it's on Zoom.”

Director of Residential Life Jessica Kupper explained that, like the rest of the country, Residential Life is unsure about how things will look next academic year.

“As we all navigate this uncertain time, there are many questions, along with a number of unknowns at this time,” she wrote. “While I don’t know exactly what the future holds, we are working diligently with the team to determine what next steps will be for the fall, should we be partially or fully remote.”

She also noted that, because of the recent hiring freeze enacted to cut spending costs during COVID-19, Residential Life is unable to recruit new RDs to fill two vacant spots. In the meantime, Kupper wrote that other staff within the department will assist residents and RAs.

Going forward, many RAs hope that further action will be taken to ensure that RDs are better equipped to handle their job. One RA explained that there needs to be a system in place to hold RDs accountable.

“If there was any recommendation I could provide for the department,“ she said, “it would be to create some kind of standardized policies, so that all RDs can provide the same amount of support for their RAs.”

Will Edmonds contributed reporting to this article.

Allison Avolio currently advises The News-Letter. She did not contribute to this article. 

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