Faced with major charges and confident that he was innocent, a senior walked into the University Hearing Board process earlier this semester and became concerned about who was deciding his fate.
I was being prosecuted with serious stuff by students who didn’t seem serious, said the senior, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. I looked at these people who were judging me and these people were younger than I am.
Many students have their cases heard in front of the University Hearing Board, made up of a group of students who listen to cases and recommend sanctions for Student Judicial Services. While participants and its advisers say the program gives students the advantage, some others say it violates their rights.
During the fall semester, 793 cases were processed through SJS. One student was expelled, five were suspended and 32 were removed from their residence halls, according to a CORE report released last month. SJS doled out 1,694 hours of community service and 285 students were assigned to alcohol education programs.
Missy Pena serves as a presiding officer on the University Hearing Board. She said her experience has had ups and downs.
I’ve come to realize that it’s letting students hold other students accountable, Pena said. If they see students taking it seriously, they tend to take it more seriously.
The anonymous senior’s episode began a few months ago, when he held a party in his off-campus townhouse. When a party guest brought a beer outside and was confronted by a Metropolitan Police officer, he fled the house and was followed by the officer. The suspect got away, but the senior was confronted by the officer, arrested and charged with assault.
The MPD charges were dropped, but the senior said SJS quickly entered the picture.
(MPD) called the University, and the University brought me in, even thought it had nothing to do with them, he said.
The senior said when he went into the hearing, he accused SJS of charging him to try and get the name of the person who fled the scene at his townhouse.
The whole thing came down to `We’re going to prosecute you if you don’t give us the kids’ name,’ he said.
The senior refused to give the name, was found in violation and placed on probation. He said he felt the process was trying to manipulate him.
I think the whole system is messed up, he said. Whoever is running judicial is the person whose at fault for this.
Finding the facts
David Pine is the man running judicial for the University as SJS manager. Pine joined the University last year after playing similar roles at Radford University, Savannah College of Art and Design and the University of Tennessee. He says the process is designed to benefit students.
Our sanctions are designed to be educational and not punitive, Pine said. (Students) agree to abide by them when they come to school here.
As part of acceptance to GW, all students agree to follow the Students’ Guide to Rights and Responsibilities or face the consequences. And because the University is a private entity, it can set its own rules and own procedures.
One of the biggest differences between criminal law and the University’s system is that there are no plaintiffs at GW.
The University does the charging, Pine said. The University has established what the guidelines of behavior are and we are the ones who interpret it.
That means the University can charge students for a violation, even if another student does not file a complaint. All complaints are filed by University Police, and then forwarded to SJS for processing.
We aim for non-adversarial, non-litigious fact-finding, Pine said.
Victims of crimes are University witnesses, another big distinction between the criminal and GW codes. They do not have the same rights afforded under law, and cannot be present during the University Hearing Board cases, except to give their testimony, Pine said.
Pine describes the University’s standard to find someone in violation as a preponderance of evidence, which means a likelihood of an incident having taken place. This is a lower standard than the beyond a reasonable doubt most criminal cases hold people to. Pine said the difference can be easily explained by looking at the O.J. Simpson case – he was found not guilty in the criminal trial by the standard of reasonable doubt, but found legally responsible for the murders in the civil trial by the preponderance of evidence standard.
After SJS receives a report from UPD, it investigates the incident, sends out letters to the students and schedules the next phase.
The University handles minor cases through a judicial conference, in which a member of SJS serves as the arbitrator of the case. But for major cases, which could result in a suspension, expulsion or a removal from the residence hall, students get the option to appear in front of the University Hearing Board.
From the bench
Students who go in front of the University Hearing Board are judged by a team of students who have been specially trained to determine sanctions for University code violations.
University Hearing Board officers question all the witnesses, determine whether students are found in violation and what their sanction will be.
Pena said the process aims for more than just punishment, but a chance for rehabilitation.
Some students are really resistant to the fact that this is trying to help them, she said. But some students take the entire process to heart, and just by preparing for the board, they have learned a lot.
Pine said most students don’t understand the process is supposed to be educational.
We’re not interested in ruining someone’s life because they violated a policy in college, he said.
Pine said even when students are suspended, the process still can have an educational benefit.
Sometimes it takes a cathartic experience to get problems taken care of, he said. Our hope is that while you’re suspended from school, you learn how to deal with the situation.
Pena said she realizes that some parts of the student code need to be changed and that the process is too slow. Also, too many students don’t know enough about the process until it’s too late, she said.
I think the process needs to be changed and made more flexible, she said. Sometimes there are extenuating circumstances that the code doesn’t think of.
She said most students don’t understand that D.C. law has no bearing in the Hearing Board room.
I don’t think they have the same rights as students in a court of law, Pena said. The University holds them to higher standards.
The University is currently interviewing candidates for the Hearing Board, and Pena said she gained insight from her time on the committee.
You see the system at work, she said. You get to be really knowledgeable about the procedures.
Navigating the road
Last semester, freshman Josh Singer watched as one of his friends went through the University’s judicial process.
He didn’t understand the process to begin with, Singer said. He didn’t know if he had to answer certain questions. He just didn’t know the laws.
Singer created the Student Judicial Advisers program to help students navigate through the process. He said too many students don’t know their rights when they are charged by the University.
They don’t know they can speak to SJS (staff members), Singer said. That’s why a lot of students have started coming to us. We’re just there to help.
Singer and the 18 other judicial advisers have been trained in understanding the University’s Guide to Student Rights and Responsibilities, which outlines the school’s code of conduct, the violations of the code and the sanctions. They then serve as advisers to students in their case in front of the University Hearing Board.
The students who are in the midst of judicial proceedings said they need the help SJA provides. A freshman, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said he didn’t know his rights until he started asking inquiring with SJA.
I didn’t know I had the right to review my file, the freshman said. When I called up, the woman was hesitant to let me
He said he was expecting to get more information from SJS.
I find it interesting, the reluctance of SJS to make me aware, he said. They didn’t come out and say what my options were. I had to probe them.
Singer said he has been working with Pine to make the code more accessible and understandable to students.
We sit at the opposite end of the table, he said. So, we see things they may not see.
Pine said he likes what Singer has been doing, because it helps educate students about the process.
The best thing to do is to be straight up and truthful, Pine said. If they made a mistake, they are going to be held accountable for that mistake.
We’re not in the business of kicking people out of school, he said.
But the senior who went through the process said he felt SJS tried to take advantage of his lack of experience with the system.
It seems like there’s a lot of the process based on making the person feel either afraid or that he is being let off the hook, he said.