Judicial Review Process Raises Concerns

By Emma del Valle '13 & Mike Goldin '14

With Reporting by Celene Barrera '15 and Rachel Jackson '14

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During an investigation regarding the sale and use of heroin on campus at the end of last term, three students who had offered testimony regarding the matter became the subjects of investigations themselves for their proximity to and alleged involvement with the issue. Sent before the Administrative Review Committee, banned from student housing for the remainder of the year and placed on disciplinary probation for the remainder of their time at Bennington, the mishandling of their investigation and prosecution sparked anger among much of the student body. The student responsible for bringing the drug to campus originally- and the subject of the College’s original investigation- withdrew from the school and left Bennington during the two day period between receipt of his hearing date and the hearing itself.

 

In weeks following that student’s departure, students who had come forward to alert the administration to the problem and who were peripherally involved in the incident were questioned; in some cases, testimonies they had supplied in service of the investigation and under the impression that they would not themselves be prosecuted later had those testimonies used against them. Throughout the review process, it was unclear to these students what was going to happen next. The BFP spoke with one of those students about the chain of events leading up to and following the search of his room. He described the manner in which he became aware that he himself was under suspicion:

I got an e-mail from Ken telling me that he needed to speak to me about a very important matter. We talked and he questioned me for about an hour. I figured that everything was finished after that, because I was under the impression that it was about [the student responsible for selling heroin], and I figured that I had made it clear that I wasn’t involved with [him]. The next day, Ken asked me to meet with him again, in his office, so I walked down to his office. He called me once I got there, or I think I might have called him because he was five minutes late. He said that he was in my room. I went back there and Ken and Sarah Walcott were in my room, with the door open... I had to contact Eva and have her come in on a Sunday and talk to me about what was going on.... I think it was just a couple of days later because I was nervous, but I was nervous about cigarette butts in my room and being charged for them. I wasn’t really concerned about my future at this school. Which was awfully naïve, in retrospect.
— Accused Student

During this meeting with Eva, the student was informed that he would be going before the Administrative Review Committee for allegations related to his original testimony, and that the least severe of all possible outcomes would be housing suspension. No evidence of heroin or related drugs was found in his room, but his advisor, who was also acting as his faculty representative, was later told that he had committed a felony by the Administrative Review Committee. Students who became subjects of investigation were told they could bring character witnesses to testify on their behalf to the Administrative Review Committee. In at least one case, witnesses were assembled, but never called into the hearing. Another student was charged because others used the drug in his room against his wishes- an event which he described in a report to campus safety of his own volition after the fact. His case was eventually dismissed, but only after his teachers and peers had been made aware of his fragile implication in the case. The reaction by campus safety, student life, and the Dean’s Office to a sensitive and complicated case opened a conversation about a disciplinary process which some students alleged to be deeply flawed, and sparked a chain of e-mails over winter break discussing what action the student body should take to reform it.

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The Policies

The College formally delineates five separate entities which process disciplinary matters of all sorts. Incidents of sexual harassment and academic misconduct are each processed through special mechanisms separate from the three entities

 

 

which compose the College’s primary disciplinary system. Trivial infractions with outcomes clearly delineated in the student handbook are handled directly by the Office of Student Life, usually quickly and discreetly. For serious incidents and allegations where expulsion or suspension are possible outcomes, the Dean of Students refers cases to the Administrative Review Committee- a group comprised of three senior members of the administration appointed by the president. Incidents in the margin between the serious and the trivial are referred at the Dean of Student’s discretion to the Judicial Review Committee- a body formally composed of 16 people: 7 students, 6 members of the faculty and staff, the dean of students, and the assistant directors of Student Life. In practice, however, the Judicial Committee has been an essentially illusory presence on campus; nobody interviewed for this story, from actual student members of the Judicial Committee to the Dean of the College, could recall any instance in at least the past four years when the Judicial Committee had been assembled to rule on an infraction.

The non-presence of the Judicial Committee in the College’s disciplinary process to date has become the subject of scrutiny since last term’s debacle, and some students have asserted the group’s disuse is only a component in a more systemic failure on the parts of both students and the administration to come together in forging a more transparent and consistent disciplinary process.

Moving Forward?

On Wednesday, the Dean’s Office closed the application process for new members of the College’s Judicial Committee. The Free Press met with Dean of the College Isabel Roche and Head of Campus Safety Ken Collamore to discuss the Judicial Review Committee and the context in which it was being re-staffed. Roche noted that the decision was only practical to some extent- much of the body’s membership had actually graduated. While Roche acknowledged that the Judicial Committee “hasn’t been called with great frequency” in recent years, there are no concrete plans to alter the policies which dictate what matters will actually go to that Committee. She further offered that the Judicial Committee is “really meant to look at student conduct issues that go to the quality of community life at Bennington,” and that the policies in place have “a certain kind of elasticity” embedded in them which enable appropriate latitude and discretion in the process.

 

Of course, what the Dean referred to as elasticity, many students consider ambiguity- a distinction which, while it hasn’t escaped consideration, remains to be addressed. “On the one hand the reason that you have policy is to make things transparent and clear,” Roche offered, “If you do X, then Y, then Z, and so on and so forth[...] There’s a school of thought that says that’s very useful. On the other hand that takes away judgement—the moment of having responsible people look at circumstances and take things into account and [recognize] that every X and every Y are not the same X and the same Y. So I think that’s a really interesting kind of tension- how do you accomplish both?” This is a point where Roche would like to seek the opinions of students to imagine “potential, possible” changes to the actual policies in the future.

Student Empowerment

Last term’s events have set the stage for meaningful change in the way the College processes disciplinary matters. Having seen and experienced the manner in which the present system responds to high-tension incidents, systemic flaws which were previously concealed have been opened to very public scrutiny- and scrutiny which the administration seems willing to share in. The Free Press will be examining best- practices in collegiate disciplinary systems in future publications, as well as working to compile a comprehensive and definitive timeline of the events which inspired this important conversation. Finally, the Free Press will continue coverage on the movement to re-imagine Bennington’s disciplinary system as a sensual and ethical, no less than an intellectual, process.