Hannah Eason, News Editor
When thinking about the environment of the Student Government Association, words like “toxic” and “hostile” come to mind for many members. At one point, after an interaction with an SGA leader, one student described wiping away tears before leading an orientation to encourage students to join the organization.
Some SGA leaders are seeking accountabilty for discrimination and harassment they say is happening within the organization. They say they’re at a loss for how to resolve conflicts between members.
Alexia Guzman, SGA vice president, and other leaders said the organization lacks accountability and has too much power.
“SGA does a great job at getting activists, getting people who want to be that change on campus or help that group of students. But then they get the activists, and it’s like they get killed,” Guzman said. “I’ve seen so many people just come in with the best intentions to do this, and then in some way, get bullied out.”
Elections for SGA president, as well as graduate and undergraduate vice president and senators, were scheduled to open on Wednesday but were postponed to allow “greater student participation,” according to Jordan James, SGA election chair.
Six people were disqualified from running because they did not fill out a required campaign finance disclosure statement. This includes current SGA President Breanna Harmon, who is seeking reelection; Undergraduate Student Life Chair Raelyn Davis, running for vice president; and Undergraduate Senators Lila Gemechu, Kelsey Russell, Ana Zahore and Samara Shabon, all running for undergraduate senate.
James said disqualified candidates are allowed to run again “as if they were running for the first time.” Dates for the rescheduled election have not been released.
Guzman said after leaving an abusive relationship, a Title IX report concerning the relationship was made by a fellow SGA leader. Guzman provided documentation to The Commonwealth Times proving the existence of a Title IX report. At the time, she had already filed her own report with the Title IX office and VCU Police but said when she talked to SGA members about it previously, “nobody gave a crap.”
The biology and psychology double major said she learned of the report before conducting a student orientation at the conclusion of a FaceTime call with Harmon, who she said told her to expect an email from Title IX. Guzman felt that the Title IX report was meant to prove she was unfit to lead, and that it was discriminatory toward her mental health.
Guzman, who is a senior and has been in the SGA since her freshman year, says that the situation made her feel uncomfortable and vulnerable.
Harmon did not respond to several inquiries requesting comment and declined an in-person interview.
“At that point, I was crying, I was in tears. And I have to wipe it all off and go upstairs and tell people to join this org. I know it sounds really traumatic but to me, it was a lack of being humane.” – Alexia Guzman, SGA Vice President
Guzman said that if she was asked about the relationship, she would have been open to talking about leaving the relationship and explaining she was in a place of healing.
The report was to be forwarded to the Division of Student Affairs, but Guzman expressed to administrators that she was uncomfortable talking about it and wanted to stop the progression of the report.
“I sometimes wish I didn’t cut it short. But at that moment, I did not want any other man, but also anyone in the school, to know what I was going through,” Guzman said. “It was very humiliating.”
Guzman described SGA as a negative and hostile environment. She said one of her advisors told her they couldn’t discuss her trauma because it affected the advisor’s mental health. Another student said an advisor told her “accountability is not in my job description.”
“We are aware of conflicts and continue to work with the student leaders to address their concerns,” said Division of Student Affairs spokesperson Matthew Lovisa in response to a request to speak with SGA advisors. “The role of SGA Advisors is to listen and support the SGA as they continue their work of supporting students. When issues arise, the SGA Advisors listen and take action when and where appropriate.”
Junior Salma Abdelkader is a close friend of Guzman’s and said while Guzman is a nurturing and supportive leader, SGA tore her down.
“It’s really heartbreaking,” Abdelkader said. “Even when I was in California, when we did touch base, she would tell me about it and I could feel the stress from the other side of the country. I could tell she was so alienated, by herself.”
SGA Chief of Staff Taylor Maloney said she was excited at the beginning of Harmon and Guzman’s leadership term.
“I was hoping that we would finally be able to have leadership, and they’ll be on the same page and listen so we could get something done,” Maloney said, “because I just kept feeling that we weren’t doing enough as an organization, especially one with all this money and influence. I felt like it was wasted.”
In October, Maloney stated in a brief that she and SGA Senate Secretary Erica Ware had an argument over personal matters that escalated.
“She repeatedly told me to come outside so that she could assault me and continued harassing me over text even though I wasn’t even home,” Maloney wrote in the brief.
Maloney then filed a traditional appeal in the SGA senate stating that Ware was elected unconstitutionally and that harassment from Ware broke the VCU Student Code of Conduct. A response from the judicial branch found that Ware was constitutionally elected and therefore her appointment was valid. Ware did not respond to a request for comment.
The report stated that although the SGA’s judicial branch does not oversee violence and harassment claims, it can guide members to resources like VCU Police or counseling. SGA Chief Justice Kriss Castillo did not respond to a request for an interview.
Maloney, a political science major, said she considered resigning after the situation, and she described the environment at SGA as toxic.
“I think it’s a pattern of people not understanding how our government is structured to begin with. And they just think of it as a straight line, like a hierarchy, like a job. So president equals boss, and everyone has to do what they say because they make all the decisions.” – SGA Chief of Staff Taylor Maloney
Maloney is a candidate for SGA president and hopes to bring more accountability to the role. She said she’s not too concerned about the election results.
“I’m hoping that someone, it doesn’t have to be me, but someone comes in and changes the direction of this org and holds not only administration accountable, but us accountable,” Maloney said.
Udhanth Mallasani, speaker of the SGA senate, said the options are limited for members to resolve issues within the organization.
“We’ve tried to hold, time and time and again, the advisors and our administration accountable,” Mallasani said. “Our only way of holding them accountable is by taking it to the judiciary, taking it to the senate, or taking it to the advisors.”