When students accused of breaking University code take the stand in disciplinary hearings, they can usually bring a classmate, GW staff member or parent to have by their side.
But over the last year, students at GW and other D.C. colleges have increasingly called in lawyers instead as they try to navigate closed-door campus judiciaries. Those systems, which handle hundreds of cases each year, can lead to penalties as severe as expulsion.
Shanlon Wu, a D.C.-based defense attorney who launched a website promoting his services for college students last year, has worked on cases from drug abuse to sexual assault. He said he spends hours with student clients – the majority from GW – explaining the process and how best to defend themselves during tough administrative questioning.
As seasoned lawyers, including former FBI prosecutors, step into campus cases, Wu said it forces colleges to open up about how administrators lead investigations and how they decide charges, judgements and punishments outside the city or federal legal process.
“There was nobody that was really focusing on the unique problems university and college students face,” Wu said.
His primary goal, he said, is to educate students. In cases of first-time offenses when a student faces a “slap on the wrist” and punishments like eviction from housing are not on the table, Wu offers his services for free.
Wu said he is most concerned about the way university judicial systems deal with serious criminal cases, like sexual assault, though he also works on misconduct cases involving drugs and alcohol, which make up about 70 percent of cases at GW.
A total of 461 drug-related and 813 alcohol-related cases were reported to GW’s disciplinary office between 2010 and 2012, according to campus crime data. During that time, the office also handled 11 cases of sexual assault.
For many of these cases, including students charged with sexual assault, the processes and the verdicts are not made public – a criticism of campus judicial systems by legal scholars and victim advocates across the country. Wu said he’s slowly working to shape the system into a clearer process for students, resembling what they would find in any other court.
“If they’re going to insist on getting involved and doing the job of police prosecutor and judge for a serious criminal case, then I think they have absolutely have to make it more of a legal proceeding,” Wu said.
In most cases, the role of Wu and his partners is restricted to guiding the student as an adviser, not speaking on their behalf at a hearing.
When working with students at GW, Georgetown and Catholic universities, Wu can guide students through the process step-by-step. They can help lay out appropriate responses and break down legal jargon. But they can’t help directly at other universities, such as American, where only students, staff or faculty can be advisers.
That moral support can be crucial at disciplinary hearings, said a GW freshman who faced a campus hearing this year.
When the freshman was accused of selling prescription drugs, she decided to bring a friend to her hearing for moral support. She said she had considered bringing in a lawyer to think about “the best things for me to explain my situation,” but she ultimately decided against it because she knew it would not change what she had done.
“You sit there and you say what happened from your point of view, and that doesn’t change if there’s a man in a suit next to you,” the freshman, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said.
After she was found guilty and switched to a different dorm room, she was then asked to take psychological tests, which she said did not indicate substance abuse problems.
Before the hearing, she said she had been briefed by staff in the Office of Student Rights and Responsibilities, the University’s main disciplinary arm, but still felt uneasy about what to expect.
“Really, when you’re going into that boardroom, you’re going in blind,” she said.
But administrators across the country have fought against the idea that campus administrators are trying to take on a police role.
Matt Gregory, president of the Association for Student Conduct Administration, said student conduct processes are supposed to be informative experiences rather than quasi-court proceedings.
“People often ask me if I am a lawyer or a police officer. I am neither. I consider myself first and foremost an educator,” said Gregory, who is also the associate dean of students at Louisiana State University.
GW has also backed away from hard-line disciplinary approaches in recent years, reforming its system to focus more on education.
Students with first-time offenses that include underage possession and consumption of alcohol are now more likely to face peer-to-peer meetings and an administrative record, rather than establishing a disciplinary record that can ban students from going abroad or applying for certain GW jobs.
Dean of Students Peter Konwerski said GW’s judicial system is meant to be an educational process.
“Our goal is not to expel and suspend people. It’s actually to help people understand what they did and kind of move past it,” Konwerski said. “A lot of it is designed to just make sure that people understand that as a community, we have a set of standards that are either acceptable or not acceptable.”
Decisions by students
At GW, like many universities, between three and five students sit in on hearings that decide their peers’ consequences. If expulsion or suspension is on the table, a faculty member or administrator will also join the discussion.
Though student misconduct can lead to criminal prosecution, SRR will also take on such cases and pursue disciplinary action. Under GW’s Code of Student Conduct, the University doesn’t refrain from disciplinary action just because criminal charges were dismissed or reduced.
Students also sit on hearings involving cases of sexual assault, a process that Wu has questioned because of the sensitive nature of the issues.
“They just can’t possibly do a qualified job at that,” Wu said. “The idea that a victim of a sexual assault has to have that issue decided by folks who just don’t have that much training just seems like a terrible injustice.”
Katie Porras, associate director of the Office of Civility and Community Standards, said student justices undergo “extensive and comprehensive training” that readies them to take on serious cases and be fair to their peers.
Porras, who is also the acting director of SRR, said students are trained in the Code of Student Conduct and hear from staff in the Center for Alcohol and other Drug Education, the University Police Department, the University Counseling Center, the Center for Student Engagement and GW’s sexual harassment response coordinator.
Compared to other universities, Wu said GW’s system of handling cases is “very efficient and effective” because students are notified quickly about their cases and are given a point of contact within the office.
But he said students remain suspicious of the system because they don’t understand GW’s ultimate goal is to educate rather than crack down on behavior.
“I’ve been to a number of disciplinary conferences and actual hearings, and to compare [GW] to other places, it does seem better organized, but that might not be a help to the actual students,” he said, adding that universities must be more transparent about the decision-making process behind their disciplinary actions.
-Brianna Gurciullo contributed reporting.