In honor of this week’s debut of FIRE’s new Student Defenders program, we’re profiling students already helping peers accused of conduct violations navigate their school’s often-confusing disciplinary systems.
Today, we’re featuring our recent chat with State University of New York at Binghamton’s Steven Lazickas. When we spoke this spring, Lazickas was director of the school’s Student Advocates program. He’s since graduated. This summer, he spent several weeks working with the Leros Solidarity Network to help refugees in crisis in the Middle East. He’s currently a summer law clerk for the New York City Department of Education’s Administrative Trials Unit. He told FIRE how he got involved with Student Advocates, how his “type A” personality is a great fit for student-defender work, and how simply knowing your rights can get you out of trouble.
Some questions and answers have been edited for length and clarity.
FIRE: Hi, Steven. Tell FIRE readers how you got involved in the Student Advocates program and how it works.
Steven Lazickas: Sure. First, I think a little background is important.
A few years ago, the Student Association’s vice president for academic affairs, an elected student, created a program that allowed students to be trained in the conduct system to better represent and advise students caught up in the conduct system. So, the Student Advocates act as advisers and representatives to students going through the conduct system.
We have a great working relationship with the university, but the Student Association at Binghamton University is actually a separate entity from the university itself. We represent all undergraduate students at the university.
The conduct system lets students know if they’ve allegedly violated the conduct code. They’re informed that the Student Advocates exist and where to find us.
FIRE: In a nutshell, what do you guys do? And why is it important?
SL: We let students know what their rights and privileges are under the student code of conduct, the student handbook, and the student bill of rights. So if a student were to be written up for a violation, we would just let them know their rights and the standard punishments that have been agreed upon by the university so that they know what to expect. We also inform them about the conduct system and how the hearings generally go and what they can and can’t do in terms of requesting outside counsel.
Some cases involve more serious sanctions than others.
FIRE: How did you get involved?
SL: It’s kind of a funny story. I’ve been involved in the Student Association ever since I first came to Binghamton as a freshman. I immediately became a student congress representative, was very active in area-wide government for my dorm and whatnot. Then, a couple of my friends, being rambunctious freshmen, ended up getting in trouble for drinking on campus. But because I was aware of the SA program and had already looked up the rules in the student code of conduct — I’m just one of those very type A people — I let them know that I would be their adviser and let them know what their rights and privileges were under the student code of conduct.
So that’s how I became a student defender.
FIRE: Wow. Lucky them.
SL: (Laughs.) Yeah. I’d like to go to law school. I’m taking a gap year first, but I’ve always been a staunch defender of rights and liberties under a certain set of rules. If I know what those rules are, then I can defend them.
So then the next year I became even more involved. The Student Advocates program is a little bit ephemeral. It kind of goes in and out of style depending on who’s in it, or who’s running it, or the structure that the current VP for academic affairs decides.
One of the things that we’re working on right now is formalizing the structure, makeup, rules, and procedures that Student Advocates go through to become official Student Advocates and then have the ability and expertise to be both a confidential resource as well as a tool for students to navigate the sometimes confusing conduct system in the most effective way.
FIRE: How many advocates do you have right now?
SL: 5 or 6. But were in the process of hiring.
FIRE: What’s your caseload like? Do you see certain kinds of cases more than others?
SL: Caseload varies by time of semester. At the beginning of every semester we always get an increase in cases because everybody’s excited to come back to the dorms and party with their friends; the RA’s knock on their door and now they’re in trouble.
Binghamton also has Parade Day, the first Saturday of every March. It’s been noted in magazines as one of the “St. Patrick’s Day Celebrations You Have to Go to Before You Die.” Large groups of students end up having parties and people get in trouble.
Then we get a smattering throughout the rest of the year.
FIRE: How do students find you?
SL: Students find out about us in a couple different ways, either by word of mouth or through our agreement with the conduct system where, when students get an email concerning their case, they put our flier at the end of the email.
We also ask all the student congress representatives to let students know we’re a resource.
We are also going to try to start sending out weekly or bi-weekly emails to students from the Student Association to all undergraduates asking if they’ve gotten in trouble.
FIRE: Do students often know their rights?
SL: Usually we’re more than helpful in terms of informing students of what their rights are. Many students have no idea what their rights are.
I have the utmost respect for the university and the university conduct system, but the university sometimes does not do an adequate job of informing students of their rights off the bat. Although it is the students’ responsibility to know their own rights, oftentimes they don’t. They don’t really know what’s going to happen at all within the conduct system. Some students are very freaked out, some students are not as freaked out. It varies.
FIRE: What’s your group’s relationship like with Binghamton University administrators?
SL: As somebody who does respect and has a friendly relationship with administrators, I do have some criticisms. Residential life directors who live in the dorms are occasionally the people who end up hearing the cases for lower-level offenses like drinking in dorms or smoking marijuana, with less severe sanctions.
But I find that they occasionally like to skip the lowest suggested sanction, like a disciplinary warning, and often go to the middle sanction and say “OK, you’re on disciplinary probation.”
I’ve seen that a couple times and it changes every year because those employees of the university also change out. There’s a big turnover rate because they’re often graduate students.
FIRE: So it’s arbitrary then? It’s based on whatever that person is thinking at that time?
SL: Yes. It is pretty arbitrary in the lower cases, and I have to say it is slightly unfriendly.
And unfortunately, as Student Advocates we aren’t allowed to address the conduct official directly in these meetings. We can only advise the students, so it’s a really interesting dynamic. We have to remain silent until we hear something that might concern us and then we have to tap the student on the shoulder and whisper in their ear and possibly ask to have a private conversation in the hall. And then go back in and hopefully the student can articulate what we know to the conduct official.
FIRE: What has this experience taught you about navigating this process? What kind of advice would you have about how to behave on campus, knowing your rights, etcetera.
SL: My first piece of advice is don’t do anything that would get you in trouble. Follow the rules.
But then, to be practical, know your rights. For example, I would say that if somebody knocks on your door, you absolutely do not have to open it. At least at Binghamton University, being a state university, if a police officer or even an RA knocks, you do not have to open without a warrant. That’s one of the easiest ways to not get in trouble.
I hate to say it, but it’s not surprising that many students want to experience the freedom that comes with college. And everybody makes mistakes. But if you’re going to make a mistake, make the smartest mistakes you can.
FIRE: Tell us more about how you’re formalizing the procedures for future generations of Student Advocates.
SL: We’re writing a formal and structured description of what the SA program actually is, what it does, its limits and what its purpose is. We’re basically creating a training manual for all advocates and the director on what the program is, how it should be run, and creating a uniform system for case management. A lot of efficiency and streamlining.
And we are trying to get that into the governing documents of the Student Association because right now we’re a bit of an amorphous organization that exists by name only.
And I’m also working on doing more outreach and creating a scheduling app where if a student does get an email from the conduct system, they can click a link for our program, see when we’ll be in the office, and create an appointment and have that locked in.
One thing that’s important to note is, I always felt like when I first joined, that it was almost like a Saul Goodman-type organization where we just tried to get everyone off the easiest no matter what. The student who was in charge at the time wanted to be a criminal defense lawyer, so that made sense.
When I came in, I tried to change the emphasis to protecting students and informing them of their rights within the conduct system.
FIRE: What’s been the biggest challenge?
SL: I end up getting the harder cases. Assault, sexual assault, or other violent or severe violations. I’ve had to deal with students that have committed violent felonies, students who have been accused of and admitted to committing sexual assault, making threats. I’ve seen almost everything that you would think that a public defender might see, and that’s really difficult.
Often, in these cases, you see a lot of people really hurt by others’ actions and it’s really hard to decide, “Do I want to take this case?” “Does it seem like this person is really guilty of what they’ve been accused of?” “Or are they being unfairly characterized?” You have to take a hard look at the evidence and a look inside yourself.
My personal belief is that, as representatives of the Student Association, we are here to inform and protect the rights of all students and if, for example, a student has admitted to committing a violation that infringes on the rights of another student, we advocates should be able to recuse ourselves. I’m actually trying to get this in the handbook.
The biggest challenge is seeing a student expelled for a violation they promised to me they did not commit. Students just see their whole world kind of fall apart when they’ve been told that a sanction has been levied upon them. It’s really depressing, actually. Really heartbreaking. To see somebody’s whole idea of what their future was going to be become fractured because of something that they claim they did not do, or because there’s a gray area in some cases, and it’s all up to how the conduct board decides. That’s hard.
FIRE: And you’d still like to go to law school after all this?
SL: I’d like to be a civil rights lawyer, so I hope whatever I’m arguing in the future is a little less ambiguous and a little more structured. But I do want to go to law school. This is a little bit self-aggrandizing, but I know that I would work my hardest and do my best to make sure that I was doing something ethical and right on the side of justice. If I didn’t do that, I don’t know who else would, so I’d rather be in that position.
FIRE: What’s been the most fulfilling part?
SL: The most fulfilling part is that I often get to see a student breathe a sigh of relief. I get to see that they know somebody’s on their side. Somebody’s there to help them and teach them and be there for them.
In the conduct system, it can often feel as if there isn’t someone there for you. I know how I would feel if I had been written up for something, and I like to see that other students don’t have to worry as much.
Also, personally, I like having the ability to make the program more efficient and streamlined so everything runs like clockwork. I’m the kind of person who loves cleaning my entire apartment and looking around and seeing that everything is organized, so I’m trying to bring that mentality to the advocates program.
The most fulfilling part is actually seeing it begin to take shape.
Check back here tomorrow for our final interview with a student defender. And don’t forget to visit FIRE’s Student Defenders page to learn more about how you can get involved.