Don’t trust the Administration to protect your rights

November 5, 2008

For some time, this public institution has jeopardized students’ constitutional rights through a number of infamous dealings. The latest example of carelessness by the administration with regard to student rights involves Assistant Dean of Students and Director of Student Conduct David Gilbert. Over the summer, Dean Gilbert agreed to pass out packets compiled by Student Assembly members that provides information to students on their rights when charged with violations of College policy. The Informer learned that when a student was recently summoned to the Student Conduct office that not only was this packet not given out but that it had never been copied for dispersal; rather, a single copy was retained with a sticker placed on front that reads "Please do not remove from the Dean of Students Office.

This student’s adjudication process, which eventually resulted in opting for an on-the-spot "informal resolution" and severe punishment, could have been informed by the packet’s distribution. The proper distribution packet may have changed the student’s mind on whether to accept an informal resolution which resulted in a severe punishment. In response to the fact that this student was not provided with a packet, Dean Gilbert claims that placing the packet online and retaining a single copy in the Dean of Student’s office is somehow sufficient — ignoring the fact that few students would "request" to look at an informational packet that most didn’t even know existed.

This example is just one in a long line of administrative carelessness. Just last fall, the College launched, and quickly revised under scrutiny, the Bias Incident Reporting System, which allowed students to anonymously report anything to the administration deemed to a bias incident. In reality, this translated to mean approval of the anonymous reporting on any sort of behavior deemed to be "non-inclusive" by the administration. This was hard for many to swallow, given the system’s problems with free speech and due process. As it was comprised last year, this system essentially placed a speech code on a wide range of expression that could be deemed as bias, or hostile behavior. Some hostile expression is actually protected under the first amendment, and this attempt, in its original form, would have had the effect of creating a thought police on students.

Fortunately, our campus is one in which the majority of students abide by a legal and ethical code of conduct. However, the high caliber of students should not be an excuse for excessive disciplinary actions seeking to create extra-constitutional standards and which skirt procedural fairness. Given the College’s inconsistent approach toward the protection of students’ rights, inaction by Dean Gilbert on informing students of their rights is not particularly surprising, but it is certainly revealing. Failing to distribute the student rights packet is obviously not criminal, but going back on your word shows you to be either incompetent or disingenuous. On top of that, one wonders why this information is intentionally guarded from distribution to students alleged of policy violations. Clearly, this action shows a careless disregard on behalf of the Dean given his previous agreement with SA members to distribute these packets to students charged with violations.

The College has promised students that their Constitutional rights be maintained, as is their obligation as a state institution. I do not believe that students should need to be spoon-fed all their information in order to make informed decisions; however, at the same time, the esoteric and secretive processes that many judicial infractions entail require an individual to be sufficiently informed. The majority of students have and do not have any idea how to proceed when alleged of violating College policy. Distributing "Know Your Rights" cards to students, as done by the SA recently, will only go so far; at the heart, these issues are indicative of the need for a change in the administration’s culture where respect for students’ legal rights and fundamental fairness is not only talked about, but actually implemented.

Administrators often have a conflict of interest, with their primary loyalty being to the school rather than our rights. A good way to get around this is to proactively inform yourself on your own, knowing that administration often monopolizes information pertaining to campus judicial systems. A good start is go on to the Foundation of Individual Rights in Education’s website, were you can freely access FIRE’s "Know Your Rights" Guides. The Guide to Due Process and Fair Procedure on Campus is particularly germane here. I for one do not take administrators claims to respect students’ rights seriously when such a simple action, passing out a packet of paper, but so important to ensuring fairness, is not taken.

Schools: The College of William and Mary