Letter to the editor

The National Failure of Student Discipline Codes

The recent anxiety generated by GW and its campus police, as referenced in the staff editorial "Students shouldn't be left in the dark" (March 7, p. 4), when rumors swirled about room searches, is the only result that can be expected given the state of university student rights nationally.

Colleges and universities operate under a hodge-podge of different standards nationwide for handing out academic and disciplinary violations, which are essentially unreviewable by courts even though the consequences of punishments can sometimes be as severe as a criminal conviction. Many colleges and universities do not even allow lawyers to participate in the discipline processes.

Colleges manage investigations, charges, student defenses, judgements and punishments on campus. This is a remarkably confident assertion of power and competency, given that in the outside world, even minor criminal charges like possession of marijuana involve investigation, prosecution, defense, judging and punishment by trained law enforcement, lawyers and judges.

Sadly, the confidence isn’t borne out by the results.

Every day, students across the country face discipline code violations that can affect the rest of their lives yet the systems under which they are investigated, charged, tried and punished remain shrouded in secrecy. I have represented too many college students whose criminal charges were so minor or weak that the charge resulted in dismissal, acquittals or community service but whose colleges or universities punished them with no regard to the outcome of the criminal investigation and trial.

This makes no sense. Colleges and universities should leave crime to the professional law enforcement and the criminal justice system. The recent protests by students at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill about the lack of transparency and poor handling of sexual assault allegations stem from similar issues. Until recently, that school allowed students to be the primary discipline decision-makers in sexual assault cases. Now they use a method where students and staff work on those cases. That solves little, since neither the students nor the staff are trained to handle such serious criminal allegations.

The state of campus policing and student discipline codes results in inconsistent and arbitrary outcomes. Universities spend millions of dollars constructing fraternity and sorority facilities only to turn around and constantly prosecute violations arising from Greek life. Anti-hazing codes have been written in unreasonably broad and vague language such that illogical violations – e.g., the pledges were told they all have to wear green t-shirts – are prosecuted even as dangerous hazing like the tragedies at Florida A&M and the horrors alluded to at Dartmouth College continue unabated. The existing student discipline systems fails at protecting students. We need a national model student discipline code that works.

Shanlon Wu is an attorney with Wu, Grohovsky & Whipple, PLLC.

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