A call to reform student discipline

By Josh Rohrscheib

This afternoon, members of the Student Senate will be recommending several reforms to the current system of student discipline. Several aspects of the discipline process raise serious questions about the fairness of these proceedings.

One curiosity about the culture of the Office of Student Conflict Resolution is they maintain that student discipline is not an adversarial process.

Although the University has an interest in counseling students and educating students through the disciplinary proceedings, the interests of an accused student are fundamentally different from those of the University.

An accused student wants to avoid punishment, or receive the least severe possible punishment, and in extreme situations the student may just want to avoid being kicked out of school. The University is most concerned with protecting and preserving the campus community as a community of scholars. To some extent, implicit in this aim is an interest in helping the accused student, but that interest is certainly secondary to their broader mission.

By repeatedly denying that student discipline is by its very nature an adversarial relationship, those administering the process are obscuring the truth. The discipline officers may repeatedly say they are acting primarily as a “counselor” or as an “educator,” but they are also keeping a record of everything the student tells to either sentence the student or to issue a report to a committee that will decide the student’s fate. Denying the adversarial nature of the process will naturally lead students to be more candid, but it is outright deception that works against the interests of the student.

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    Several aspects of the actual procedures call into serious question whether or not our discipline procedures are fair.

    Under the current discipline procedures, an accused student does not have a right to question adverse witnesses. This is every bit as fundamental to due process as the right to present a favorable witness. Denying the questioning of adverse witnesses might make the process appear less adversarial, but it does so at the expense of making the process less fair.

    In some cases, students were presented with the evidence against them less than 15 minutes before their hearing. The administration owes students a reasonable amount of time to prepare a defense. We are asking the administration to guarantee accused students receive the full case against them, including all evidence, at least five business days prior to their hearing.

    One of the most troubling aspects of the discipline system is how few cases even make it to a hearing. The staggering majority of cases are handled through a process that is very similar to a plea bargain. Students are offered a particular sanction they are told is the “least severe probable punishment.” If they waive their right to the hearing, then the penalty will not get worse, but if they demand a hearing the penalty may be even likely to get worse.

    The administrator who runs the OCSR, ironically named Dick Justice, denies this is like a plea bargain. Once more, denying its nature does not change its nature.

    This waiver process is and is not like a plea bargain. It is like a plea bargain because students are threatened with the possibility of a more severe punishment if they do not waive their due process rights. It is not like a plea bargain because with plea bargains, a prosecutor offers a sentence and a judge has oversight to make sure that sentence is fair and reasonable; in the student discipline context there is no case-specific independent oversight of the discipline officer. Here the judge is the prosecutor.

    Fundamentally, student discipline is intended to educate students, not just punish them. This mission does not justify denying the adversarial nature of the process.

    Even if the administration has the best of intentions, students must be given robust protections to ensure they are treated fairly. Students should be afforded the best process the university can reasonably afford.

    Josh Rohrscheib is the president of the Illinois Student Senate, a third-year law student and a guest columnist. His column appears on Mondays. He can be reached at [email protected].