Out of concern for their peers amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, C. said they reported Oakland parties they saw both with their own eyes and also from social media — particularly among fraternities and sororities. C. reported these incidents through Pitt’s COVID Concern Connection system.
C. asked to remain anonymous due to fears of backlash from fellow students and friends who are a part of Greek life. While they used the reporting system three separate times, they said they never received any formal response or message from the University, as of last Sunday.
The latest report C. filed was on March 14 and included their contact information. After The Pitt News reached out to C., C. said they checked the system after not receiving any follow-up from Pitt. But C. found the status of the report marked as “closed” on March 18 “without any sort of response, no follow up, nothing” from Pitt.
Laurel Gift, an assistant vice chancellor who leads the Office of Compliance, Investigations & Ethics, said she reviews each complaint. The office, which Pitt formed last April, monitors internal investigations to ensure they are appropriately handled and are properly supported.
Gift said the COVID Concern Connection system is used to report behaviors broken down into two “issue-types” — behavioral concerns and medical concerns. She said the system has received 1,321 reports as of March 18. The reporting system — which is monitored by a team of Pitt administrators and staff members — gives the community an anonymous way to share concerns.
People can file reports for a number of different activities, such as large gatherings on or off campus, students, staff and faculty not masking or properly socially distancing, quarantine concerns as well as questions about COVID-19 testing. Every concern that is reported is reviewed daily by Gift. Gift said she makes sure every concern is routed to the right department and case manager, and then sends a summary report to the COVID Compliance Team.
She said the team is made up of representatives from all regional campuses, Student Affairs, Student Conduct, the Office of Compliance, Investigations & Ethics, the Office of Community and Governmental Relations, Residential Life, Athletics, Pitt police, the COVID-19 Medical Response Office and University Communications and Marketing.
Gift said all users receive a confirmation that the complaint was received, and the COVID Compliance Team then decides how best to respond to the community member who made the report. She added that the team meets at least three times a week to discuss concerns. A University press release from last September also claimed that anyone who identifies themselves when they submit a concern will receive an email within one day from Gift that acknowledges it was received, provides a reference number and discloses “follow-ups taken.”
“The system allows for communications with reporting parties — even if they choose anonymity,” Gift said. “All users of the system receive an email once their concern is received. Most users receive follow-up questions from case managers, and the system alerts users when a case is closed out.”
But some students are not satisfied with the reporting system.
C. said they did not receive any follow-up email — only an automated acknowledgement of their post through the system itself — for each of their three reports. Their first report was to report a large gathering at Flagstaff Hill in the fall, according to C.
“When we got [to Flagstaff Hill], it was really rowdy, and there was loud music. I think people were drinking, too. We weren’t a part of that at all, but I was getting really concerned about it,” C. said. “After we got back to campus, I decided to call the hotline to report what was going on because I wasn’t sure if the cops were really going to do anything because they didn’t seem to be stepping in or telling people to go.”
Besides filing a report through the COVID Concern Connection website, Pitt community members can also call or text a representative to share a concern. But when C. called, they said they were confused whether the person who answered the phone was in Pittsburgh.
“I kept describing [the situation] to them, but they kept asking me ‘Which department do you want me to send us a complaint to?’” C. said. “They didn’t know what Flagstaff Hill was, they didn’t know any of the locations I was talking about.”
C. said it was “shocking” and that they expected the University to hire someone internally to take the complaints, rather than offload it to a separate company and “not take [the complaints] seriously.”
“I was so frustrated with this person because they genuinely did not seem interested or concerned at all,” C. said.
Pitt spokesperson Kevin Zwick said the hotline is staffed by a third-party company that sends all calls to the University’s Compliance Team. According to Zwick, while every call and report is reviewed by Pitt personnel for further action, a report to the COVID Concern Connection is “just the start of the process.”
“It’s important to note that this is not a real-time response system — it’s a reporting system,” Zwick said. “To support Pitt’s Compliance Team, and to provide 24/7 service, the hotline is staffed by a third-party company that relays all calls to the compliance team.”
Zwick said following the Flagstaff Hill report, Student Affairs worked with Pitt police and counterparts at Carnegie Mellon University to engage the City to expand “presence” in this off-campus location.
Zwick added that the Compliance Team is better able to take action when reports include specific information, such as addresses, detailed descriptions of behavior and photos.
C. said their next report, filed online, included photos. C. filed this complaint on March 14 because of a St. Patrick’s Day party they saw on social media. Not knowing that there was a police presence already at the party, C. thought they would “get a response within two days from a Pitt official” and decided to attach photos of the party with Instagram usernames. C. said they checked four days later to see the status of their report, only to find that the report had been closed without any response by email, phone or the reporting system itself.
The COVID Compliance Team chooses whether or not to take action on a complaint, according to Gift. Barbara Ruprecht, the director of the student conduct office, said concerns are forwarded to her office, where they are reviewed to determine if the concern contains enough information to assign an alleged code violation.
Pitt updated its Student Code of Conduct this academic year to issue sanctions to students who are not compliant with public health guidelines. Students who host parties can face academic suspension, housing suspensions or be switched to persona non grata status, preventing them from entering University buildings or property. More than 300 students received code of conduct violations for breaking COVID-19 mitigation protocols last semester.
Ruprecht added that even if there is not enough information to assign an alleged violation, the conduct office will consider having an “educational conversation” with the individual student and/or the student organization. Gift said “a variety of different people across the University decide depending on the nature of the concern, its severity and whether enough information is provided to follow up or act.”
But another student, who also asked to be anonymous due to fears of retribution from peers, said they don’t think Pitt is taking parties seriously enough. M., a student who was concerned after repeatedly seeing large gatherings near their off-campus apartment, made their first report last semester.
“I filed my first report anonymously. After seeing how little Pitt seemed to follow through with reports, I started adding my name and contact information to my reports,” M. said. “I actually spoke to a group of people that I’d reported. They had no idea that they’d been reported, despite my having reported them more than once.”
M. said they reported this group three separate times after watching them host large gatherings with more than 10 people and without masks in a house on M.’s street. M. said they received automated responses by email to their reports the morning after each of the four times they used the reporting system.
But M. has not heard anything specific from Pitt about the outcome of their repeated complaints, as of March 26.
“I don’t believe any action was taken because of my reports,” M. said. “[The reporting system] is a good idea, but I don’t see it being successful due to the lack of information reports can offer and the lack of action on Pitt’s end when receiving the reports.”
Zwick said the outcome of any hearing will not be shared with the reporting individual, in accordance with privacy protections afforded by the Federal Family Education Rights and Privacy Act of 1974. To ensure student privacy, FERPA prohibits the University from sharing information about students with individuals unless the individual is a legal guardian or the student is financially dependent upon the individual.
Ruprecht said Pitt takes the complaints seriously, and there are consequences for students violating the code of conduct. Four students have been suspended from housing as of March 18, with one additional student facing housing suspension, pending appeal.
But C. said they aren’t convinced that Pitt is treating these reports with importance, saying the representative they talked to seemed “lax or very uninterested.”
“[The party I was reporting] isn’t like a sensational thing or anything. This is something that was pretty concerning for me, but they just did not seem like they cared at all,” C. said. “And I was just like, why did they have this system in place?”