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Wichita State's independent, student-run news source

The Sunflower

Wichita State's independent, student-run news source

The Sunflower

Student senator’s privacy breached, accommodation bill in SGA indefinitely postponed

Student+senator%E2%80%99s+privacy+breached%2C+accommodation+bill+in+SGA+indefinitely+postponed
Thy Vo

After announcing his intent to resign from the Student Government Association (SGA), Fine Arts Sen. Garett Knight said that while seeking accommodations, his FERPA-protected information was shared recklessly amongst SGA senators by advisers, cabinet members and senators, impacting his status and involvement within the body.

To assist future senators in need of accommodations and prevent further privacy breaches, he drafted his own bill  — dubbed Accommodations in the Senate  — and planned to propose it to SGA before determining if he would resign from the Student Senate. The bill, which he intended to present during the Nov. 1 Senate meeting, has since been indefinitely postponed due to pending revisions.

Hospitalization

Knight, a music education and composition major, joined SGA in April for this year’s session after serving on the Freshman Leadership Council last year. As a new senator, he said he was excited to make an impact and apply what he had learned during high school as student body president.

“I’ve had experience, and I’ve seen a lot of things on campus that I wanted to change,” Knight said.

Knight said he did not have the introduction to the student Senate that he had hoped for. During the second week of classes, he said he woke up with a “huge, disgusting headache” that resulted in a three-day hospitalization. 

“Lights wouldn’t help, sound hurt, and (I got) enough to the point where I was throwing up and like … my whole left arm and … my body went numb,” Knight said. He went to the hospital, where doctors thought he might have had a stroke, he said.

As Student Government Association senators debated the Registered Student Organizations Appropriations Act in August, Knight watched the live stream while immobilized in bed.

“So I watched the whole night, and I was … talking to people,” Knight said. “I was specifically reaching out to people while this is going on — people who are upset and mad — and (I’m asking) ‘What can we do to fix this?’”

Return to Student Senate

When he returned to Senate, Knight said he was upfront with his peers that his absence was due to being hospitalized, but he intentionally did not disclose why he was admitted. In confidence, he shared his circumstance in greater detail with SGA’s adviser, Brandon McClain.

Not long after his return to SGA, Knight went through one of his first formal grade checks. All senators and SGA members sign a release form after they are confirmed to the body to enable SGA advisers Gabriel Fonseca, McClain and/or Abby Whistler to perform routine grade checks to ensure Senate members remain eligible to serve. 

Fonseca primarily advises the judicial and executive branches indirectly, McClain manages student senator affairs, and Whistler works with cabinet directors and executive groups.

Under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), advisers cannot disclose the academic or financial information of students to others. 

While Knight had a high enough GPA to retain his seat in SGA, he said he was identified as being in the “worry area,” a GPA between 2.5 and 2.7. Knight said that he was told if his grades continued to slip, he would be suspended from SGA without a probation period.

  “It says nowhere in the Student Government Association constitution or bylaws that if you are between a 2.5 and 2.7, that you have to do a (separate) grade check form, and if you’re below it, you are booted (without probation),” Knight said.

As part of his Office of Student Accommodations and Testing (OSAT) accommodations, Knight said he receives extra testing time on exams. Because the testing office receives and must send off his scores, it takes longer for the professors to grade his work. He said SGA grade checks did not consider this.

“The professor grades (my tests) after already grading everyone else’s, and so it takes longer to get into that system, and a lot of it wasn’t ready by midterms,” Knight said.

According to Fonseca, while SGA attempts to adhere to all necessary accommodations, there is no policy in the SGA constitution or by-laws that requires the body to abide by OSAT accommodations.

“I will say it is imperative to me as one, an administrator, but two, as an adviser to student government, that we provide the necessary accommodations for someone to be successful in that space,” Fonseca said. 

Knight said SGA’s lack of an accommodations clause inspired his accommodation-oriented bill. He said it led him to feel that SGA doesn’t consider it to be “their problem” that accommodated grade results are late.

Over the following few weeks, Knight said that he began to hear talk circulating within leadership regarding his private mental, physical, financial and academic information.

Behind closed doors

Later in the semester, Knight applied for pro-temp and clerk positions within the Student Affairs Subcommittee. Knight said that following his interview, from behind a lobby door, he heard adviser McClain tell Student Affairs Subcommittee Chairperson Victoria Owens that Knight couldn’t “be trusted to make it on time” to meetings because of his medical history. According to Knight, the adviser recommended that Knight should not be selected for either position.

“I was like, ‘Okay, I just pray to God they don’t let that influence them,’” Knight said. “It can be scary when an adviser like that, with so much power, tells you to do that, and if you go against that, it can become this battle.”

Owens and McClain did not respond to The Sunflower’s requests for an interview.

In May, when Speaker of the Senate Kylee Hower was considering committee chairs, McClain also discouraged Hower from selecting Knight, but Hower said McClain’s reasoning didn’t involve Knight’s personal information.

“Brandon had talked to me and just been like ‘I don’t really think that he’s super reliable, so I don’t think you should put him in a position of leadership,’” Hower said.

Fonseca said it’s not unusual for advisers to provide personal opinions or advice regarding selections for positions, but ultimately, students make their own choices.

“My job (as an adviser) is to help (senators) make the best decision they possibly can because there are always consequences for every decision, good or bad,” Fonseca said.

Due to the weight that FERPA violations carry, Fonseca said that advisers and staff operate on a “need-to-know basis,” where only necessary information is shared with those in Senate leadership.

“I can’t foresee a member of leadership across the student government and whichever branch of government they’re in ever sharing need-to-know information with anyone who doesn’t need to know,” Fonseca said. “It is an expectation that I set with them.”

Because senators are not bound by FERPA or other privacy policies, privacy breaches can occur among senators. 

“If a senator or member of SGA shares that information with someone else, and that other person shares it with other people … we can’t control that,” Fonseca said.

After his information was breached, Knight said he planned to draft and present two bills. The first, which is currently pending revisions, will extend OSAT accommodations to SGA. The second, which hasn’t been written, will apply some form of FERPA-like protections between students and advisers in SGA and registered student organizations.

Accommodations in the Senate

Knight’s Accommodations in the Senate bill aims to require SGA to uphold OSAT accommodations within Senate proceedings. It will also provide support services to “facilitate the full participation of all student senators, including those with disabilities.”

“It’s just the same as if it was in the classroom, except of course, some of the accommodations aren’t the same,” Knight said. “It’s more of protecting their rights.”

The draft of the bill also calls for the establishment of an American with Disabilities Act Commission, which will create a space for student senators to request specific accommodations for meetings or events.

According to Hower, the bill needed to undergo a few revisions, which were to be managed by accessibility subcommittee chairperson Adriana Owens. As of Nov. 29, no modifications to the bill have been submitted. Adriana Owens did not respond to The Sunflower’s requests for an interview.

“I would say it was kind of both ends dropping the ball a little bit,” Hower said. “Hopefully, we can get this fixed.”

While the bill will likely not see the Senate floor until next semester, Fonseca said that nearly all accommodations can be met as long as advisers are made aware. 

“I’m not going to allow Student Government to not create an environment in which people can’t be successful in that space, (even) if it requires that we have to invest money in certain things or spend money … it’s worth the expense,” Fonseca said.

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About the Contributors
Allison Campbell, News Editor
Allison Campbell is the news editor for The Sunflower. A South African native, Campbell is a junior pursuing a journalism and media production degree with a minor in English. Campbell hopes to pursue a career in editing after graduation. They use any pronouns.
Thy Vo, Advertisement/Design Manager
Thy Vo has been the advertisement manager and design director for The Sunflower for two years. Vo is a senior majoring in graphic design and minoring in marketing with hopes to pursue a career in graphic design after graduation. This is her third year on staff. You can alternatively contact them at [email protected]. Vo uses she/they pronouns.

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