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 teens.drugabuse.gov 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.