‘East Carolinian’ on N.C. Students’ Rights to an Attorney

By October 11, 2013

When North Carolina passed the Students & Administration Equality Act (SAE Act) in August, it became the first state in the country to guarantee the right of its public college students and student organizations to be represented by an attorney in non-academic campus disciplinary hearings. Yesterday, in East Carolina University’s (ECU’s) student newspaper The East Carolinian, writer Ryan Clancy reported on the new law, including statements of support from FIRE’s Robert Shibley and remarks from ECU Dean of Students Lynn Roeder, who has reservations about it.

According to Roeder, ECU students accused of university violations often had student advocates with them even before the SAE Act was passed. She argued, though, that attorneys’ participation would change the disciplinary process:

Roeder believes that adding attorneys to the disciplinary process at ECU would take away an opportunity for students to learn from their mistakes.

“The whole process is not to be adversarial,” said Roeder. “We know students make mistakes and what we want to do it make sure we’re able to help them make better decisions so that’s why we never had lawyers.”

The critical problem with this statement, though, is that it presumes the guilt of the student charged with a code violation. Not every accused student has, in fact, made a mistake from which he or she needs to learn. Further, the process of determining whether a student is responsible for the charge in question is often adversarial, whether Roeder acknowledges as much or not. The school and an accused student usually are not working together towards a goal of rehabilitation, based on a mutual understanding of underlying facts. Quite the opposite: An accused student is generally denying the school’s assertions of certain facts and trying to ensure that he or she will not be unjustly punished.

Perhaps even more telling is the fact that Roeder makes this argument in the same breath as her insistence that ECU provides its students with due process:

“At East Carolina, and I can’t speak for all the institutions in the UNC system, but we truly believe in student’s due process rights,” Roeder said. “We’re not into tricking students. We want them to understand the decisions they make and how it affects their future.”

Indeed, a finding of responsibility in a campus hearing could significantly affect a student’s future, whether that finding reflects decisions the student actually made or whether it is a result of a low standard of proof and a lack of procedural safeguards. That’s why the SAE Act is so important for students’ protection.

FIRE’s Robert Shibley explained that the law could help curtail the kinds of due process violations that have occurred in the past:

“Too many times FIRE has seen procedures be ignored by the colleges and universities that guarantee them to students,” said Shibley. “It’s one thing to ignore procedures when you are facing an 18 or 19 year old student in the hearing room … it’s another thing when there’s an attorney on the other side who knows how procedures are supposed to work.”

Thankfully, the law is now in effect in North Carolina, and students now have an important tool to help ensure they receive a fair hearing. But Roeder’s attitude is unfortunately not unique to North Carolina. Administrators across the nation need to be careful not to make the dangerous assumption that all students subject to a campus hearing deserve the school’s sanction.

Schools: East Carolina University