Due process needs a checkup
In many campus disciplinary hearings, student council members evaluate evidence that they are unqualified to review. The lack of expert opinions in these proceedings is worrying, and should be a matter of concern for students on all college campuses. Our campus hearings should mirror that of our legal proceedings as closely as possible to ensure fairness and efficiency; it is unacceptable to expect any less.
At my school, however, we’re working to rectify this problem — in September 2014, the College of William & Mary passed a new amendment to the Student Handbook that allows students facing both academic honor and conduct violations to submit medical documentation to a Medical Review Committee for consideration. This committee functions much like an expert witness in a civil or criminal trial; it is comprised of medical and mental health professionals who are able to assess if a student’s medical condition should be considered as a mitigating circumstance in disciplinary proceedings. As a member of my campus’ Conduct and Honor Advisor Program, I have witnessed first-hand the extremely positive impact this policy has had for students I represent in these proceedings.
Prior to the 2014-2015 academic year, student members of the investigation committees would often have the final say on whether an accused student’s submission of a psychiatrist’s letter, prescription, or other various medical history information was relevant to their case. This presented serious due process concerns; students, although they have good intentions, are in no way qualified to assess the extent to which their peers’ medical history should serve as a mitigating factor, much like juries, without the assistance of an expert witness, aren’t qualified to determine if an alleged criminal’s medical history should be relevant to their guilt and sentencing.
Another consequence of this flawed system was accused students’ sacrifice of their privacy. If a student decided to include their medical information as evidence, they had to face the reality that an entire panel of their peers would be privy to their personal medical information. Although these council members are bound by FERPA, a statute that prevents the disclosure of private student information, it can be extremely disconcerting for students to know that their peers on campus have direct access to their most private and intimate medical information.
Since its implementation, the Medical Review Committee has had a significant positive impact on conduct proceedings. The MRC acts as the third party where all medical information is submitted, allowing the student to have privacy from the hearing panel. The MRC will then formulate an opinion on whether or not the information should serve as a mitigating factor in determining both responsibility and sanctions.
The committee’s opinion has substantially changed rulings on specific sanctions where students document mental health concerns. If the MRC determines that a student’s medical condition should be taken into consideration, it can help the Honor and Conduct Councils sanction students in a way that is rehabilitative, rather than purely punitive. For example, the council might recommend “continued counseling” or an “appointment with the counseling center” as a secondary sanction in lieu of removal from extracurricular activities.
The efforts by the administration to include medical information in the hearing procedure has the added benefit of documenting how mental health can be a serious issue in the life of a student. The use of the MRC’s opinion, with the addition of a medical professional in assigning responsibility or sanctions, provides comfort for students to come forward with information they may have been afraid of sharing with the administration previously.
Conduct and honor proceedings are incredibly stressful for any student, and it is imperative that all parties are comfortable sharing relevant information. I applaud William & Mary for taking these proactive steps to address mental health in our hearing protocols, and I hope that other students will continue to fight for these due process protections on their campuses.
Rahul Truter is a rising senior at The College of William and Mary