Crime, Punishment, and Justice in the Face of Tragedy

This post is part of a series of reflections on the recent events on campus. If you have anything that you would like to contribute, please feel free to reach out to us at staff[at]wesleying[dot]org.

In a matter of hours after I write these words, students, friends, and members of the Wesleyan community will be seen before a judicial panel somewhere in North College to determine whether or not they will be allowed to stay on campus. I first heard about this from a petition that is being circulated calling on Deans Whaley, Culliton and Backer for “sound judgment and restorative justice” for the students that are facing a hearing over spring break when the majority of campus is away. The petition states, “judicial processes [are] being blatantly overruled” and seems to paint these trials as unusual, suspicious, and unjust.

I wanted to investigate these claims and help spread awareness of how our school’s judicial system actually functions. While much of this information is available in the “Judicial Procedures” section of our Student Handbook, I know few of us actually read or understand these rights and procedures.  This post is my search for truth in face of unfortunate circumstances while recognizing that the Student Judicial Board is so often given a bad reputation due to misinformation. I want to understand how and why these students are being charged and how the University has handled this case.

When a student is brought before the SJB it is first decided what type of hearing will occur. The different types are as follows:

·      Judicial Conference– This is probably the most common case where a student will meet with a member of Res Life staff and will discuss the alleged minor violations. This conference results in the student signing a summary form indicating they have reached an agreement. This is the kind of case that might occur when you are found drinking alcohol in your dorm room and then given a few points and asked to write an essay about the dangers of underage alcohol consumption.

·      Simplified SJB hearings– This type of hearing is also for minor violations where the act is brought before a panel of three student members of the board. Usually administrators are not present although they are allowed to attend if they so desire. This case can result in any number of disciplines including “disciplinary warning, disciplinary probation, community service assignments, fines, restitution, and educational assignments.” If the case is deemed more serious it may move on to a full hearing.

·      Full SJB hearings– This case is for “serious” violations where the panel will be made up of five voting members in a combination of student board members, at least one faculty member, and at least one administrative advisor.  Again, these hearings can result in a number of different penalties. Also interesting, if the Dean of students deems the student’s presence on campus as dangerous for themselves, university property, or any other members of the university community they may be given an expedited hearing with an interim board (discussed below). This is the kind of situation that might occur if the student is charged with something like arson or threats to another student.

·      **Joint Student-Administrative Panel–  This is the type of panel our peers will face tomorrow and occurs when there are “egregious violations and/or serious violations where external legal charges may also result.” Dean Culliton told me, “The University has specific procedures to follow when students are facing criminal charges outside the university and we are following those in these cases.” This board is made up of two students and two administrators. If a decision cannot be made, the Dean of students may make the final determination.

·      Administrative Panel– This hearing is for violations of sexual misconduct, assault, or Title IX violations. Presumably for reasons of confidentiality, there are no students on this board, which is made up of two male and two female members of the faculty. There seem to be many other issues with this type of hearing but as I am focusing on this upcoming case I’m not going to discuss those here.

·      Interim Administrative Hearing– This panel occurs when the SJB cannot convene (apparently over breaks longer than spring break). It is made up of the Dean of students, an SJB advisor and at least one voting student member. “The SJB member(s) of the interim administrative board may participate in hearings via speakerphone or other similar technology.”

Thinking of the upcoming hearing, I wondered, if the split panel of students and administrators fails to come to a consensus, how could one administrator (Dean of Students) hold the power to make the final decision? In my mind the administration could decide to ignore the panel’s students and overrule the decision. This seems particularly worrying when the case has gotten so much media attention and the outcome could result in probation, suspension, or even dismissal of the students. I emailed for clarification and a student on the SJB panel (albeit a new panel member) said he has never heard of a case where the decision was not made by the board. When I asked Rick Culliton (the Dean of Students himself) he gave me a very interesting answer:

Decisions in all cases are recommendations made to the Dean of Students, who implements findings on behalf of the university. Rarely does the board not come to a consensus in its cases, and I am not aware of an occasion when the Dean of Students made the final decision on his own.

So it seems administrative abuse of power within the hearing is unlikely and hopefully will not occur.

The petition also criticized the administration’s decision to schedule this hearing during a time when students are not on campus. They probably felt that the administration did not want to deal with student protests or maybe even wanted to deter them from seeing their friends.

A co-chair of the SJB informed me that the timing of cases is decided with advice from the dean’s office, but the final decision is made by the entire board. When school is in session they meet weekly to schedule cases and when they are not on campus they schedule over email. Perhaps the scheduling of this case is simply to let these students know if they can return to school or not as quickly as possible. Why this case was scheduled during this time can only be left to debate.

I then wondered how the students on the panels are selected. From my emails I garnered that members of the panel are selected based on their availability and whether they have conflicts of interests in the case (for instance, being friends with the student).  I asked Dean Culliton if the fact that this case might affect the reputation of the University and has received such extensive media attention might be a problem for the panel remaining impartial. He wrote back:

This is not the first time that a panel will be hearing a case with student, parent and media attention.  The panelists are expected to consider all of the evidence, listen to the students and make decisions that are in the best interest of Wesleyan and the students involved.

One of my student contacts elaborated:

There will always be inherent bias in every case we hear,” but the board “always strives to keep things as unbiased as possible and take things on a case per case basis. The SJB is a fact-finding body. The board’s duty is not to find fault in every student appearing before us; its duty is to ensure that all the facts of the case are heard in order to correctly find the student responsible or not responsible and hand out appropriate and helpful sanctions if found responsible. Bias does not and should not play a role in the process.

I believe this to be a very honest answer. I believe the SJB has a very difficult job and is probably rarely given the credit they deserve for having to make these high stakes decisions.

But these answers still leave me conflicted. Is this petition with 250 supporters (and counting) based completely on false evidence? Why are these particular students being brought in front of the board, and placed in jail, in the first place? This is where I think the intention of the petition and the tangible tension on campus is felt. Similar to the SJB member, I also recognize my own bias, and the bias of the students I talked to in this reporting. The following information I have received from a number of students involved in the case.

The news of the student hospitalizations began Sunday morning and ran through the afternoon. By the next Tuesday afternoon the Middletown police and Public Safety had interrogated dozens of students including four of whom were taken off in handcuffs. I understand completely the need for Wesleyan to comply with the law. I also understand that with 10 students badly injured in the hospital (along with many other students who went to the hospital on their own accord the next day), they had to take some action. Especially with the storm of parental and media attention, there was simply no way the administration could, or should, have waited to respond. Yet from my understanding of the situation, I do not believe the administration acted in the best interest of our community nor did it help remedy this terrible situation in any way.

The interrogations that occurred in those two days involved intimidation, including telling students false information that their friends in the hospital had died in order to gather information. Every single member living in Eclectic was questioned, the basis solely that a party in this location was where some of the students started feeling sick.

In a state of fear, shock, and misinformation rumors were easily spread. If you remember the frenzy and panic on campus those few days you know falsities spread like wildfire. The campus polarization and intensity was further aided by articles about the incident popping up on every major new source. Reporters ran rampant on campus interviewing any and every student that would give them a word. What was eventually released in those reports, including, very unfortunately, the names and faces of the convicted students, was a case of poor, reactionary journalism that was even out of the control of the administration.

Somewhere within this crossfire these charged students became trapped. Perhaps the police know more, but to my knowledge, some of these students were not related to the incident. Rather they were targets of the swift, harsh, punitive administrative decisions informed largely by hearsay. They were the scapegoats of the pressure for action and the need for the administration to do something.

These students were then brought to jail on unrelated charges of possession; quite frankly, the same criminal violations that would befall many on our campus if Dean Whaley offered the police immediate access to our rooms that Sunday. The same type of charges that, from my understanding, would typically be brought straight to a full SJB or student-administrative panel.

After paying exorbitant bails, these students were forced to find a place to live off-campus since they had been immediately banned. This is perhaps what the petition means by saying they were “evict[ed] without due process into a cold February winter.” They were offered no support from the school in locating a place to go, many of them forced to find and pay for hotels moments after being released from jail. They were further unable to retrieve their possessions from their rooms, a situation that made it impossible for some students to pay for their accommodations. In fact, one student was mailed a credit card by their parents but administration would not allow them to retrieve their mail without it being gathered by Dean Scott Backer, a person they were surely unlikely to trust after all that had occurred.

After these events, Dean Mike Whaley sent an email to the student body thanking us for our “bystander intervention” and sharing information with hope for a “campus with fewer dangerous drugs.” He said now that “some among us have been arrested- the impact to these individuals is significant, but I am hopeful that our campus might be a bit safer now.”

I fail to believe any part of this statement. I heard similar sentiments from the many passionate students who flooded his inbox upset by the wording of this email and how this situation was being handled, or rather, not handled.  Without proper health services, drug education and testing kits, our campus is not safer. With the feeling that at any moment our school would rather be given a pat on the back by parents and media than honestly protect the students who need it most, I can not imagine students are safer.

The administration has failed to recognize that maybe our campus has a drug problem; a problem of use and abuse of many different substances, molly included. They have failed to recognize this incident in the larger context of punitive and dangerous drug policies where these substances are made in secretive environments that often cause their precise and difficult chemical processes to be screwed up, leading to incidences such as the one that just occurred. They fail to recognize that if there is a market for drugs, as there certainly is, they will find their way to campus one way or another. Instead they took the route that looks much nicer on the front page of a paper: announcing that this handful of students who supply these substances make our campus unsafe, but now that they are gone the issue has been dealt with.

What will make our students safer is a better understanding of the drugs that have become so common, the risks they pose to our bodies, and a clear understanding of both their health and legal consequences. Emails to the student body should not say the students took Molly (MDMA), but then send us to links alerting us “there are a growing number of substances being sold as Molly which contain no MDMA at all.” Incredibly intelligent students on our campus studying government and neuroscience should not be expected to receive “accurate” information from where the front page of the website talks about “Demi Lovato’s road to recovery” and has games to play. Our campus deserves to have honest conversations about why these drugs have become so rampant. Perhaps we must admit that students will always take drugs in some form or another and reliable, free testing should be available.

Tomorrow morning at 10 am I hope these students are thought of as members of our Wesleyan community. These students are activists, friends, and scholars. They have high GPAs, work passionately in their courses and extracurriculars and, like all of us, have dreams and futures. They are students that struggle with the pressure of Wesleyan as we all do. They ended up in the most unfortunate situation that has occurred at my time at Wesleyan, but I simply cannot see them as the administration has, as dangerous criminals.

Do I believe students who sell drugs should be let off the hook because they are intelligent and attend a wealthy institution? No.

Do I believe the tactics that incriminated many of these students were excessive and wrong? Yes.

Do I believe there should be punishment for someone who unintentionally sent many students to the hospital? I don’t know. Probably yes, there needs to be some sort discipline in this case.

Is this decision for the SJB going to be incredibly difficult and very complicated? Absolutely.

I hope that the pain and suffering that these students have felt in the past few weeks will be recognized as enough punishment without further stripping away the possibility of their graduation, which for one student is mere months away. I hope the SJB will make a fair decision but recognize that they might not know the full truth of how the administration has dealt with this case. I hope for all that we find a way to build solidarity and stay strong through the rest of the semester, whatever may happen in a mere matter of hours.

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25 thoughts on “Crime, Punishment, and Justice in the Face of Tragedy

  1. Curious '14

    We come from such a high place of privilege to even say “these kids who are responsible for putting someone in a coma have been punished enough, they’ve learned their lesson” and “they’ve got their whole lives ahead of them…” etc.

    People find it a lot easier to attribute innocence/naivete/blamelessness to some rich kids w/o a criminal record. But let’s be honest- the people responsible nearly killed someone. They are lucky they didn’t. Whoever dealt those drugs was shamefully reckless, and if they had got caught on the street they’d go to jail and no one would fight for them.

    They are being advocated for because of an enormous amount of privilege that most don’t have. And it sounds like people think their buckets of privilege being at risk is more of a reason for them to come away unscathed. Is it wrong for us to exercise this privilege anyway? I say yes- especially if we’re not actively fighting for those without it.

    1. Current student

      I think the question is whether or not the arrested students are even the ones responsible for this incident. There’s clearly evidence that they all dealt drugs, but how can we be sure that ALL FIVE of these students were responsible in dealing the tainted molly?

        1. Gary Gary

          Exactly, that’s the entire issue at hand. NOTHING is clear, and yet we are making life changing decisions for these five students.

          1. guest

            it is CLEAR that they dealt drugs, and that is a felony offense. we are not making life changing decisions for these five students, they made them for themselves.

  2. consequences

    Every time anybody buys or sells hard drugs, they’re feeding into a system of violence. Maybe if people were more educated about the path that drugs need to take in order to finally reach the consumer, they would reconsider ever being a part of the transaction. I guess students at Wes are too much in a bubble to ever think about the consequences, the exploitation and violence that they help fund when they do drugs. Read some investigative journalism.

    1. realities

      That point doesn’t really stand up when you consider the fact that prohibition is the only reason that these substances are affiliated with crime and violence in the first place. Let’s say you were around when alcohol was illegal in this country, and someone said “every time anybody buys or sells booze, they’re just supporting bootleggers and other criminals.” You would probably raise an eyebrow, knowing that all the violence surrounding alcohol at that time was a product of prohibition forcing people to turn to the black market. People are always going to consume alcohol and other drugs, and no amount of legislation, imprisonment, and state-sponsored violence is ever going to change that fact. We saw what a monumental waste of human life and taxpayer dollars alcohol prohibition was, and it’s about time more people realized that the current war on drugs is the same thing.

      1. still tho, consequences

        You are right, in suggesting that the only way to stop the violence is to change the system. The system that exists now is a product of legislation, the inherent nature of the physiological damage that addictive substances can commit, and other complicated social factors that are beyond my scope of knowledge.

        I am saying that every single time that someone chooses to buy/sell drugs, they should be making an informed decision. For example, many people in our community are concerned with where their food comes from, whether it be for health reasons, ethical reasons, or whatever. In the same way, people should at least wonder what they are putting in their bodies in the form of unregulated substances, and what path those drugs took to get to their destination. If people stopped and thought about what had to be done in order for the drugs to end up in their hands, maybe they would take the dangers more seriously: “Since I have no clue where this was produced, transported, what kind of cutting agents it contains, and whether or not all people involved in getting it to me behaved or were treated ethically, I probably shouldn’t use this.” Or maybe that’s part of the thrill.

        The PRESENT state of the drug system, unlike a more ideal state (which you suggest we should strive for, and I agree), makes it so that buying and selling drugs is harmful to a whole bunch of people, not just the final consumer. Ignorance is bliss, but the reality is that choosing to do hard drugs currently carries consequences, and ignoring that fact is childish.

  3. A concerned alum

    Shouldn’t “Incredibly intelligent students on our campus studying government and neuroscience” be able to make informed choices about their actions on their own?? We say that Wesleyan students are so smart, and if that is the case (which I hope it is) then they should know how to find reliable information about drugs (or anything else) and make informed decisions. You can’t tell me that Wes students are unaware that possession of drugs is illegal. Their Wesleyan education should have at least taught them how to find reliable information to make informed choices about their behaviors. If they did their research and still wanted to distribute/consume illegal substances, then they are to blame. If they didn’t properly research the potential consequences for their actions ahead of time, then the fault is still with them. I’d hope we are all smarter than relying on whatever the administration sends out in an email, or worse, waiting until the administration sends an email to consider the risks associated with our behaviors.
    The real world isn’t kind either- (see the Bali 9). Being a good person, or a smart person, should help you avoid getting into these types of situations, not be your excuse for avoiding punishment after the fact.

    1. WesleyanStudent

      “Being a good person, or a smart person, should help you avoid getting into these types of situations, not be your excuse for avoiding punishment after the fact.”

      I would shake your hand if that were possible, sir. Well said.

    2. campus culture

      The reality is when it comes to buying drugs and partying many of the students are not doing as much research as they probably should. Rather they rely on their friend’s advice and an understanding from our campus’ drug culture that molly is common and fine.

      Although we should be smarter than whatever the administration emails to us, if those emails had any substance they could be an important reminder for students that these drugs are very serious and have very serious consequences. Instead they are ignored and opinions are formed by experience, and everything was fine last weekend when my friends took it or the weekend before, or the weekend before that.

  4. Isak

    I’m sorry but at least two of these kids have been involved in providing drugs in other instances when people went to the hospital. Despite what that whack job Brazilian might tell people, his shit wasn’t safe. I have had many friends have terrible and horrifying experiences on drugs that he promised them were one thing or would do this or that. He should’ve been dealt with by the administration 3 years ago when those kids fell violently ill and landed in the hospital

    1. piss off

      this is really not the place for the blame game, dude. take it back to the ACB. if you did any of your research beyond the sensational media, you would have known that “that whack job Brazilian” had absolutely nothing to do with the current incident.

  5. Student

    Let’s be real; the SJB is largely a kangaroo court and there is no due process. The committee gets “advice” from Scott Backer and Rick Culliton and the Dean of Students has the power to arbitrarily overrule a committee of students, anyway. Moreover, the procedures are set up in such a way that makes it extraordinarily difficult for a committee to be lenient on students or find them not responsible, if they are going by the book.

    These students will be expelled. It doesn’t matter whether or not they actually should be. It is very clear what the administration thinks, and when that is the case, the committee will always almost assuredly follow suit.

    1. ya

      true…. unfortunately…
      war on drugs rhetoric enters the campus so easily.
      whereas real measures taken against sexual violence… hmmmm cant recall an instance.
      these administrator-liberals are conservative as fuck

      1. WelseyanStudent

        Hypocrisy at its finest. “real measures taken against sexual violence… hmmmm cant recall an instance.” What do you call all the bullshit Fraternities have been put through? What do you call this campus’ oversensitive, inescapable feminist populace that now seems to speak for all of Wesleyan?

        All you crusaders, against the Drug War, the Rape Cultures, the Male Power Constructs, and the perceived injustices of your campus are just sheep. Welseyan wanted to use you all to get rid of frats, now they feel like ignoring you to get rid of some druggies.

        You are what is wrong with this campus. You make me sick.

        1. feminist

          feminists who want to fight rape culture are what’s wrong with this campus? not my rapist, that admitted to what he did and was allowed to return the next semester? ok.

        2. Tired

          “the bullshit Fraternities have been put through” are not real measures. That’s the point of the OP’s sentence. This could be a platform on which to agree instead of squabbling.

          I want us to be on the same side so please don’t ruin it by being mean on the internet and saying that being anti rape culture is a crusade that makes you sick

  6. Alum

    “I do not believe the administration acted in the best interest of our
    community nor did it help remedy this terrible situation in any way.”

    No higher-ed prioritizes protecting the best interests of students or the student community above its own interests. A higher-ed institution is not your parent or caretaker. It has its own interests, which are separate and sometimes conflict with those of students, and it will protect these interests first, including its brand. Sometimes this means harshly and publicly punishing students after an event that has created a lot of bad press for the institution. Sometimes this means protecting students who have intentionally perpetrated violent acts against other students and abandoning* or betraying** survivors.

    Students who would like to see institutions behave differently need to remember that institutions are doing arithmetic to determine what course of action will best protect their interests. You have to change the numbers that they add and subtract if you want them to change their behavior.



    1. MoGreen

      Enjoy your planet Wesleyan experiences. When you return to Earth you will soon realize that even elitist academics like you must abide by the law. You are not nearly as smart as your Mommies told you.

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