Step back, Security

Last month, my friend and I were walking home from a dining hall when she experienced a severe health problem that required medical attention. I placed a call to Campus Safety and Security, and, within minutes, a safety officer arrived, quickly radioed central dispatch, and, before I knew it, I was riding along with my friend in an ambulance to North Adams Regional Hospital. After my friend and I discovered that my friend’s symptoms weren’t anything serious, we were then conveniently picked up by a Campus Safety vehicle driven by an officer who, last semester, had actually escorted my friend back to her dormitory one night.

Despite these many helpful, casual encounters, I’ve nevertheless come across several incidents where I would have preferred that some limited form of due process governed the interaction between Campus Safety officers and students. As the veteran member of the Honor and Disciplinary Committee, I certainly recognize how, in instances where the community’s safety might be in immediate danger, the judgment of safety officers must be trusted. Similarly, deans and other administrators ought to retain a great amount of discretion into the fact-finding process behind student misconduct. However, in an effort to ensure the fairest standards, I would advocate introducing to the Student Handbook a minimal text clarifying the administrative procedure for questioning suspect students.

For background, the faculty-student Honor and Disciplinary Committee decides on cases involving not only violations of academic honesty but also, as per the Student Handbook, “cases that involve violations of individual rights or the rules of student conduct.” The Committee hears these cases “either on direct referral by the Office of the Dean … or on appeal of a dean’s decision.” The last time the Committee heard an appeal was in spring 2007, when the Committee decided to grant the appeal in view of what the Committee saw as questionable conduct on the part of Campus Safety officials.

To be sure, the vast majority of appeals of dean-ordered sanctions are overruled. In the case of the last appeal, however, the Committee held that the questioning process was unduly harsh and could have induced a false confession. Although many on the Committee suspected the student of misconduct, a majority of the Committee nevertheless ruled that the imposed sanctions, which relied heavily on the student’s supposed confession, were overly severe. We learned that the student had been questioned one morning at a painfully early time when, for over an hour, he was denied several basic needs, including access to prescription medication. The Committee further determined that the potential for misconduct on the part of one safety officer might have rendered the College vulnerable to outside litigation, and so it was better to afford the student a less severe sanction.

Since then, the Office of the Dean, Campus Safety and Security, as well as the Honor and Disciplinary Committee have undergone substantial changes in membership. I remain the only current student to have sat during that hearing of over a year and a half ago. Yet, I believe that the details surrounding that particular questioning process are in fact irrelevant to my proposal of allowing College administrators a chance to clarify their own procedures when it comes to extracting information from students and contacting local law enforcement. Granted, the incident which sparked the appeal back in spring 2007 is unlikely to repeat itself, and so far no further disciplinary sanctions imposed by our current dean have been appealed. Still, I hold that the incident placed the Honor and Disciplinary Committee into an unacceptable position: punishment for severe student misconduct should never be lessened due to the potential misconduct of campus officials.

In their official capacities, Campus Safety officers operate as intermediaries between the student body and local law enforcement, helping to ensure that questionable incidents can be handled by the Dean’s Office before any outside authorities are contacted. Aside from their roles as campus rule-enforcers, these officials also provide students with access to emergency transportation, inconveniently locked dormitories and a safe means of walking home on a dark, stormy night. For these reasons and more, the men and women of Campus Safety and Security deserve a hearty thanks from each of us. I nevertheless think that a minimal form of due process would not interfere with Campus Safety and Security’s quite necessary and unfortunately thankless role.

Andrés R. López ’09 is an English, philosophy and legal studies major from El Paso, Tex. He is the student chair of the Honor and Disciplinary Committee.