Thursday, May 22, 2008

COS Review Forum

On May 16, the COS Review Committee released their Report, containing twenty-three recommendations for changes to the disciplinary procedures at the College, with the understanding that "specific implementation" would be at the discretion of the new Dean of the College, Thomas Crady. This evening, May 21st, a forum was hosted by Student Assembly in which COS Review Committee Chair Katherine Burke and Director of Judicial Affairs April Thompson outlined some of their recommendations for students in attendance, and fielded a large number of questions about specific proposals.

Before the event began, the room was abuzz with various different conversations, and using my keen reporter's senses I was able to determine two things. 1) Sexual assault was going to be the major focus for students in attendance, and 2) the state of progressivism and social justice is alive and well amongst particularly committed students; in fact, there are rumors that the Dartmouth Coalition for Progress is developing a special Women's (Womyn's?) Coalition, presumably to be more efficiently progressive overall. Make of the latter point what you will, but the way sexual assault cases are handled by COS is clearly of concern to a number of students.

Read my entire journey through the recommendations after the jump.

Almost immediately after introducing themselves, Burke and Thompson addressed the question that seemed to trouble many in in the room: Why hadn't the Committee forwarded every one of the Student Assembly's Task Force recommendations verbatim to Dean Crady? Imagine the shock in the room when it was revealed that the Department of Judicial Affairs reviews the COS every ten years, and the Student Assembly's recommendations had not been the impetus for this dramatic chain of events at all. After the concerned young activists in the room came to terms with this, Thompson and Burke assured us all that they cared greatly about student feedback, and would take copious notes for their own, the Committee's, and Dean Crady's perusal. With that, we were off to Tackle the Twenty-Three, and any questions we encountered along the way.

Many of the recommendations are mundane (though some of the reasoning, such as worrying about learning opportunities during the time off campus because of suspension, seemed slightly more than questionable), and so we proceeded through the list unfettered. On Recommendation 4, COS Eligibility, all of that changed. One student in the audience, after dancing about for a time clarifying and ensuring that she understood the recommendation that students with previous disciplinary history might indeed be eligible, declared that she has "some concerns about that." Suddenly, pens jolted to notepads and heads snapped to attention; they were clearly not kidding when they said feedback was important.

From this point forward, most of the talk was about sexual assault. The student who raised the concern is a SAPA, and was worried that perhaps a student who has been accused of sexual assault in the past but found not culpable will harbor some grudge in the future, and should not be allowed to serve on COS in complaints concerning sexual assault. The fact that the hypothetical student was cleared of responsibility, and therefore would presumably be equal in capability and innocence to anyone else did not seem to enter into the analysis. Thompson and Burke assured the student that COS did not want there to be any doubt about the validity of a finding, so it would make case by case determinations about eligibility if the recommendation is adopted.

The other major concern was Recommendation 9, Standard of Evidence. The Committee had disagreed with the SA recommendation, and had decided that the standard of evidence should continue to be a "preponderance" rather than the more strenuous "clear and convincing". Our two guides explained that the decision had to be one that was "right for this community", and that Dartmouth is simply "not interested" in having a "more intrusive" information gathering process. When they phrased it that way, in terms that conjure images of wiretaps and strip searches, it seems obvious that such things should be avoided. Of course, somebody who is falsely accused would probably not give a flying social justice what the community was interested in, but would prefer finding information and clearing his name. The same student who had earlier expressed concerns about allowing innocent students to serve on COS because of past accusations announced that she agreed with this recommendation entirely. Part of her reasoning? The College seems to have minimal evidence gathering capabilities, so it makes sense that we have minimal evidence requirements. One can just picture that taken to its obvious conclusion.

One issue that flared up unexpectedly was really too perfect a microcosm to convey with words alone, but I shall take my aforementioned reporter's instincts and endeavor to humbly do my best. One student was about to leave, but Ms. Thompson became upset and asked whether he didn't have any concerns to voice in person. Beginning in an off-hand tone that could not long contain the urgency he obviously felt about the issue, he expressed concern that there are a lot of students of color who are going through the COS process. SA Vice-President Nafeesa Remtilla joined in, noting that she had noticed that "colored students" have been accused more often. This reporter was not sure the term "colored" was still PC, but did not allow that to distract him from the urgency of the issue and potential implications. An inquiry was made, could demographic statistics be made available so that the proper advocates could begin fighting for the mistreated minority groups? Thompson and Burke were working through an explanation that such a thing would be wonderful, (but privacy issues might come up), when suddenly one student had the insight to ask directly of the two women with actual COS experience, Are minorities statistically more likely to be brought before COS. Well...No.

So after a few more ideas were posited, Ms. Thompson assured us that perception of bias was an issue that should be addressed even if it did not prove to have merit, and one more student got in an anecdote about a student of color being brought to a room filled almost entirely with sinister white males, the issue petered out. For the time being, obviously.

The only other questionable recommendation is that accusers be allowed to have another hearing in light of new evidence, something that seemed to run contrary to the protections against double jeopardy that are inherent in real law. Thompson and Burke admitted that they could not think of a tangible difference between the different standards of evidence, so the two biggest controversies of the evening seemed to have hinged entirely upon abstract notions and a perceived but nonexistent injustice. And there are a few good ideas thrown in to boot, it's worth a glance.

There was a bit of excitement at the conclusion, when I was outed as a plant and questioned about the Review's stance on any of these issues. I gave what I thought was a diplomatic response, that the newspaper is not a monolithic entity and that I could only speak for myself, one lone student who had a few qualms about tossing out legal traditions including innocence until proven guilty and protection from double jeopardy. To those who shared the arduous journey with me, and may feel betrayed, I would like to go on record that I do believe sexual assault is one of the most serious crimes imaginable, that bias based on race is wrong even if it didn't happen to exist this time, and that the only reason I may appear bigoted to my progressive peers is that I believe justice happens to matter a little bit more.

Read the SA recommendations here.


Anonymous said...

Nicely reported and written.

Anonymous said...

I think the Phrygian article in The Dartmouth needs a post too.

No crimlaw necessary said...

It's good that you noted that COS is not "real law," and you might have noted that it need not resemble "real law" either. COS is to the law as a dolphin is to a tuna: it looks similar for a reason, but that doesn't lead to the conclusion that it should grow gills. The ideas of innocence until proven guilty and protection from double jeopardy (which doesn't apply against all newly-discovered evidence, by the way) don't need to be a part of a private, contract-based adjudication process just because they are a part of most national criminal justice systems. If they would improve COS, they should be put in for that reason, just as lowering the standard of proof and reducing the ability of the accused to bring in outside help should be put in if they too will improve COS.

Anonymous said...

As reported in the D regarding the administration’s approach to student discipline (COS) reform:

“An official report on the College’s Committee on Standards released by the COS Review Committee on Monday does not adequately reflect the Student Assembly’s 2006-2007 recommendations on Dartmouth’s judicial system, Assembly members complained in the organization’s weekly meeting Tuesday. David Imamura ‘10, who compiled a document comparing the review committee’s recommendations with those of the 2006-2007 Assembly committee, said he was disappointed by how little the reports had in common.”

As reported in a followup report:
“The Committee took the Assembly’s report into consideration, along with the input of many other groups and people on campus.”

So the administration asked for a lot of student input and then ignored it. Why?

Perhaps the D’s editorial staff opinion had the answer:
“To counter criticism down the road, Crady and the rest of the administration will likely point to this review as an example of how they are responsive to student concerns. This claim would be a fallacy.”

Excellent teaching of students in preparation for becoming alumni and getting a similar administrative & trustee run-around on governance. Funny that the D's editors are critical of the administration's approach to students, but uncritical of the same tactics when shown towards alumni.

Anonymous said...

Why don't you tell us the story about the contract that every alum signed with Dartmouth again... and don't forget the detail about how it says We promise not to give you or anyone in the whole world the runaround, on pain of lawsuit.

Anonymous said...

It's good to give people the runaround and, unless there is a law against doing so, the College should do it.

Let's get over all this. The College used to need the small financial contributions of the alumni and was willing to stroke them ceremonially.

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