‘I felt like it was wasted’: VCU SGA members asking for accountability from fellow leadership

SGA President Breanna Harmon was one of the six candidates disqualified in this year's SGA elections, which have been extended. Photo by Jon Mirador

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.

SGA Vice President Alexia Guzman holds a senate meeting in the University Student Commons on Monday. Photo by Jon Mirador

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.

SGA Senate Speaker Udhanth Mallasani conducts an SGA senate meeting on Monday in the University Student Commons. Photo by Jon Mirador

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.”

Documents from the VCU Student Government Association Judicial Committee
Statement from the Student Government Association Judicial Committee in response to a brief filed by Chief of Staff Taylor Maloney.
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14 Comments

  1. This is not a cohesive article and it seems to be very biased in favor of Taylor. I am disgusted with the abuse of media and the half given story this should be removed immedy

    • Yeah…the writing here is not a very good reflection on the university. Poor exposition, bad factual logic, and quite shoddy reasoning. Not to mention the obvious bias.

    • Re: Bria Walker’s comment, while I agree only one side spoke for this article, it seems that the effort was made to talk to the other side and they did not respond (as evidenced by 3 separate “did not respond to a request for comment” mentions). If they wanted to defend themselves against allegations, they should have done so when given the opportunity.

  2. Maloney and Guzman are some of the most heartless and ruthless officers and don’t respect many students. They’re playing victim but I’m sure their criticism is well placed.

  3. Drama within the Student Government Association has been going on for years. During the first reign with Destinee M. and James McPaul…drama was also at an all time high. The two stated would consistently talk badly about specific senators. In some cases, James was known to be outwardly blunt and disgustingly rude especially in public spaces or at events. They both consistently criticized the Chairs and never really made any true effort to support any events outside of the ones that they solely created. Senator Guzman and Senator Maloney have every right to feel the way that they do. It seems like petty problems/personal issues continue to get in the way of the work that they would like to accomplish. Several attempts have been made to contact the SGA President who seems more than ever to be trying to cover up her involvement in the toxicity taking place. All of this is extremely childish, especially the harassment and physical harm threats. This is continuing the image of the SGA as a hostile, drama filled, and worthless organization on campus.

  4. Does VCU really think that this is something new within SGA, or were they just not doing anything about it the past several years until the toxicity was publicized? As another comment that I saw mentioned, this harassment and toxicity has been present within SGA since Destinee and James McPaul were in office. Both were incredibly immature and not fit for leadership roles. The amount of favoritism, name-calling behind closed doors, and thirst for drama within this organization during that time was appalling. I joined SGA with the intentions of doing something good for the university and making a difference, only to find out that it looked good from the outside but was absolutely rotten on the inside.

    • Destinee Keith and James did a phenomenal job as SGA President and Vice Presidents. They created an entirely new organization from the ground up. Where there is new territory, there often comes many individuals who resist change. It’s unfortunate to see the current leadership, including Alexis Guzman, attacking the current President and SGA Advisor. Wanting to fire the President and SGA Advisor for doing their jobs is absolutely pathetic. I hope this can be changed. Additionally please stop throwing around Human Resource words like “hostile” environment. These words have a large impact that will effect your professional career.

      • Destinee and James did next to nothing! Keith was the only person out of those three that actually supported other senators and encouraged them. Numerous times James acted incredibly unworthy of his position while in Senate meetings as well as outside of senate—especially in the SGA office towards specific senators and delegates. I have never seen anyone treat their colleagues as terribly than I have seen James McPaul treat other people in SGA. Its pathetic that people continue this charade that James or Destinee did ANYTHING worth while in Student Government. In addition, I saw how Destinee defended James’ disgusting behavior numerous times over and over. I am sure glad they graduated and left VCU. It was a relief in itself because the behavior seen by both in meetings is not exemplary of leadership skills WHATSOEVER! As far as Alexis id concerned, she has always fought for what is right and what is wrong….if Breanna mistreated her or others…a simple public apology could go a long way to show people that you want to move past your mistakes and hope to do better in the future.

        • Honestly, you’re pathetic and racist. People only had an issue with SGA Leadership of 2018 because most of the voted leaders were predominantly black. You should really be ashamed of yourself.

          • And once again ANOTHER attack on an African American SGA Leader. Please consider leaving VCU as you are not accepting of diversity and inclusion.

    • Destinee and James literally did EVERYTHING for SGA. From the “Empowering Students” slogan, to creating a VCU SGA Twitter which was 1700+ followers, to creating monthly emails to inform the student body on event activities and opportunities on campus. They literally empowered each committee ON BOTH CAMPUSES to plan and execute at least one event per semester, making a total of at least 10 NOT including major events Midnight Breakfast and Extra Exam Study Space. For the first time, students actually KNEW what was going on within SGA instead of feeling like the organization is better than the student body. Destinee and James’ characters were attacked on MULTIPLE occasions by Keith Zirkle, Vivek Kuruvilla, Alexis Smith, and others during 2018. As someone who began as a senator in 2018…they did A LOT to better the campus including social action events where the NEWS interviewed leadership and commended their accomplishments.

      In the same manner, this year Breanna did an AMAZING job from what I have seen on campus. She was active on campus, heavily involved with the university president Dr.Rao, and at large initiatives such as Ram Camp. Unlike 2019’s SGA, Breanna has invested in the betterment of SGA. It really is sad that sheep are trying to yet again tell a false tale.

      I really hope that SGA improves otherwise get rid of it because clearly people are in it for the power and trying to take down those who are simply just trying to do their jobs.

  5. Wow I am a freshmen thinking about joining the organization and I am absolutely disgusted that you all think that this is the place to do all of this. I mean who ever made this article was petty, but my god the people in the comments are no better. You all are acting like this is a presidential race or something. The fact that people in there 20s can act so immature is astounding. You all need to have an intervention or something cause man this is embarrassing to yourselves and to the university. So glad I found out about this drama before I joined

  6. Pathetic and Racist? I am a Black myself and was also a Senator during Destinee’ and James’ administration. James McPaul is a disgusting human being. He always thought he was better than other people. He even made one of the senators cry on numerous occasions and even talked down on her as well as other senators/delegates in any opportunity that he could get. I can’t see why anyone would want to claim him as an exemplary leader let alone as a friend. Honestly, VCU is better off selecting candidates after a thorough interview from Student affairs staff because the organization is as petty as the article portrays.

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