- Associated Press - Sunday, November 23, 2014

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) - Colleges across the country are using disciplinary boards that operate secretively to pass judgment on students accused of violent crimes, including rape and assault, and they often impose light punishments for serious crimes that are never reported to police.

Some boards act like criminal courts even though the college administrators, students and faculty volunteers serving on them have little or no legal training, The Columbus Dispatch (https://bit.ly/1vdKvVJ) reported in a joint investigation with the Student Press Law Center.

Punishments for violations such as assaults, robberies and other violent crimes sometimes amount to little more than minor sanctions such as writing essays. Both victims and students accused of violations have said the system is unfair and broken.

Most schools either don’t understand or refuse to follow federal and state laws that require certain records in these cases to be public.

Officials with the U.S. Department of Education, which enforces the student-privacy law that is frequently and improperly used to restrict access, declined interview requests, the newspaper reported.

Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine said in response to the findings that his office will conduct a review of how the state’s public universities use their student disciplinary boards and train their members.

The Dispatch and the student law center asked 110 colleges, including Ohio’s 13 public universities and two of their branch campuses, to provide disciplinary records for cases involving violent crimes.

Federal student-privacy rules allow colleges to release the names of students found responsible for a crime of violence, but more than 75 percent of schools did not provide any documents even in states where open-records laws require them to release such information.

The 25 colleges that provided records collectively found students responsible for a violent offense in 1,970 cases since 2010. A total of 152 students were expelled. Five students found responsible for sexual assaults weren’t suspended, expelled or placed on probation.

Students faced criminal charges in only seven of 158 sexual-assault cases.

Some boards said they often face cases that aren’t black-and-white.

“The really complex cases, like sexual assaults, are hard, said Andrea Goldblum, a former conduct officer for Ohio State University and now a consultant for a national campus-safety firm. “Prosecutors won’t take them on, yet we’re expected to and required to.”

Critics said colleges aren’t equipped to handle serious cases and have limited training.

“That is not a recipe for justice,” said Joe Cohn, legislative and policy director for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, , a civil-liberties group in Philadelphia.

Officials at Miami University in Ohio said they need flexibility to determine punishments for complex cases.

“I always say, you have to walk in our shoes to hear our cases and to make a determination as to what is an appropriate outcome,” said Susan Vaughn, director of office of Ethics and Student Conflict Resolution at Miami.

The secrecy of the campus judicial process has created a system that students and the public cannot trust, said Carolyn Carlson, a Kennesaw State University journalism professor who in the 1990s led reporters’ efforts to make the disciplinary system more transparent.

“As long as it’s a secret system, they can’t see how everybody’s being treated,” Carlson said. “They have to take somebody else’s word that they’re being treated fairly.”


Information from: The Columbus Dispatch, https://www.dispatch.com

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