GVSU teaches student-offenders a lesson
Campus judicial system geared toward education
In an environment such as Grand Valley State University, learning is encouraged — even when students break the law.
The University Judiciary, which is operated through the Dean of Students office, is responsible for handling student misconduct.
“The process is intended to be an educational learning process,” said Dean of Students Bart Merkle. “The point of the process isn’t to beat students up. We’re trying to help students grow and develop, and there are times that people make mistakes.”
TYPICAL CASES, SANCTIONS
Though the number of judicial cases handled is fairly small compared to other universities, it has grown with GVSU’s population. For the 2012-2013 academic year, 152 cases went through the Judiciary, with drug offenses being most common at 49.
First-time drug or alcohol offenders are usually referred to the MACES or ACES program on campus, but not always. Merkle said the judicial process is well scripted, but what comes out of it varies greatly.
“Recognizing that every case is different, it’s virtually impossible to say, ‘Well if such and such a violation occurred, this is automatically what’s going to happen,’ because it just doesn’t work that way,” he said. “There are individual circumstances that can change things dramatically.”
According to GVSU’s Student Code, a student can receive a range of sanctions, from a written reprimand to dismissal from school.
“Some of it depends on what the issue is, and again, when you start talking about if there’s going to be a sanction involved — is there any history, is this the first time the individual’s been involved with the judicial system, or is it the second time,” Merkle said. “You can have some gradations of severity of certain kinds of things.”
The second most frequent case was theft at 34, which resulted in four suspensions. Students can be suspended for different periods of time, with a year typically being the longest. For more serious offenses, indefinite suspension or dismissal are other options.
“If we had somebody who was involved with a firearm, a weapon, there’s a good chance that we would probably do a pretty serious suspension,” Merkle said. “Things that threaten the safety of people in the community are taken pretty seriously.”
Dismissal means a student may never return to GVSU, but the sanction typically isn’t used. Instead, an indefinite suspension is preferred, which involves removing the student from school with the possibility of returning if GVSU agrees to it.
Restitution could be another sanction if a student is found responsible for vandalism, but one thing GVSU doesn’t do is fine a student.
“We’re trying to have a fair and reasonable process and we want it to be education based, and punitive fines just doesn’t serve our purposes very well,” Merkle said. “Quite frankly, you can have students who have a fair amount of resources who can get themselves in things, and they just buy themselves out and it’s no big deal.”
THE LEARNING PROCESS
Anyone can make a referral to the University Judiciary. Once a referral is made, each case is assigned a judicial coordinator, who is selected from a pool of candidates and is responsible for overseeing the entire case.
The accused student is then notified of charges, possible consequences and names of witnesses, and he or she has the opportunity to admit or deny responsibility. If a student admits — which was how 85 percent of cases ended last year — the case goes back to the coordinator for a sanction.
If students deny responsibility, they can choose to have a hearing before a Hearing Officer or Judicial Board, which is made up of one faculty, one staff and a student, who are each chosen from a pool. If the case involves academic integrity, then the board is composed of all faculty members — a rule GVSU recently changed after reviewing FERPA laws.
“I think part of it is they were concerned about a student being a part of a hearing related to academic work of another student,” Merkle said. “We reviewed it and concluded that that probably made sense.”
If a case goes before the Judicial Board, the coordinator explains the process to both parties before the hearing takes place. Students are allowed to have an adviser to go through the process with them, but the adviser’s role is limited.
“The way our process is set up, that adviser has no standing in the hearing other than to directly advise the student,” Merkle said. “They can’t ask questions, (and) they can’t inject themselves into the hearing process.”
If a student is found responsible for a violation following the hearing, the coordinator again decides the sanction.
Students can appeal a decision for three reasons: if they feel the sanction is too severe for the violation; if new information is presented that was previously unavailable; and if the judicial process wasn’t followed.
“And that (Appeal Board) would always be a different board, or group of people, than who originally heard it,” Merkle said.
If the student appeals that decision, the case is sent to Merkle for the final call.
“By the time appeals get to me in the final appeal, almost always it’s about the severity of a sanction,” he said. “That’s what a student is looking for. If it comes to me, I always give a student the opportunity to sit down and meet with me if they want to.”
Because the Judiciary isn’t a court of law, student-offenders can receive sanctions through the legal system, as well. A student might be found responsible in the campus judicial system, but found not guilty in a courtroom, which Merkle said can be confusing.
“The university’s process has nothing to do with the courts,” he said. “They’re two totally different processes.”
GVSU’s Dean of Students office keeps students’ judicial records for seven years, but the system that’s currently used is outdated.
“All of our records are paper files,” Merkle said. “We file them basically in an alpha order — not by year, because inevitably we get a fair number of requests every year from investigators, particularly through the federal government.”
Merkle said going to a paperless system hasn’t been an area his office has been pressed on. However, recognizing a shift toward greater accountability for public institutions, Merkle said the system should be “computerized for the sake of some of the reporting we’re having to do. But we’re not there yet.”
Melissa Kuepfer is the administrative assistant for the Office of Student Conduct at Western Michigan University. She said her office has used a digital database since 2004.
“We’ve had some variety or other for a while,” she said. “We just got a new one a year and a half ago.”
Aaron Klein Haight, director of Judicial and Special Programs at GVSU, oversees the University Judiciary. She said GVSU is behind other schools in that respect.
“There are systems out there that institutions are using that we’re looking at right now,” she said. “We know that we need to kind of go a paperless route.”
Haight surveyed schools in Michigan and formed a committee to look at a few of the main software systems being used. She said GVSU is hoping to have the digital program up and running next fall semester.
“We’re moving as fast as we can, but it’s a big decision and we want to make sure we make the right one,” Haight said.
Michelle Burke, director of Student Life, was interim chair of the Student Organization Review Board, which handles student organization misconduct cases. SORB is run through the Office of Student Life and also takes an educational approach when sanctioning groups that violate policies.
“Whenever we develop a sanction related to a charge, we try to do it in a way that will be educational and hopefully make it so the behavior doesn’t happen again,” she said.
Anyone on campus can file a referral to the University Judiciary or SORB. If a case goes to the Judiciary but is determined to be a student organization violation, it is sent to SORB.
“When a referral comes through, we then, depending on the situation, more than likely make contact with the president and the adviser of the group and find out their end of things,” Burke said.
The organization can then admit responsibility and discuss a sanction or choose to have a hearing before SORB. In that case, a Hearing Review Panel is drawn from the seven or eight members of SORB, which include Student Senate appointed students, faculty and staff members. Any conflicts of interest are addressed and the hearing is conducted.
“There’s an opportunity for testimony from witnesses, the group that’s being charged has an opportunity to speak to the charges, (and) if there are any complainants that want to come into the hearing, they can do that,” Burke said.
However, there are very few referrals that actually go to a hearing. Most of them can be handled through discussions, and other times cases are simply dropped, Burke said.
“Sometimes, there’s a complaint and it was really a misunderstanding,” she said. “And the group didn’t violate any code; it was just, maybe they did something that somebody didn’t like.”
One of the most common issues SORB hears is regarding an organization’s financial management. Student groups get access to a purchasing card and then forget to bring back receipts, or they keep the card for days.
“In that case, it’s more of a, ‘Well you know, you’ve lost your p-card privileges for the year,’ or something like that,” Burke said.
If a group is found responsible for a violation, sanctions can vary from written warnings to permanent revocation of the organization’s registration. Most of the time, sanctions are given with an educational component, such as regular meetings with coordinators and advisers to get the group more positively engaged on campus.
Merkle said he has seen students go through the disciplinary system who have been able to talk themselves out of being responsible for anything. The judicial process, whether through his office or SORB, ultimately comes down to education.
“Sometimes our judicial process is the first time they’ve ever really been faced with being accountable for their own behavior,” he said. “And sometimes that’s a little tough for them, but you know what, sometimes that’s some of the best learning they may have their first year in college.”