Why We Should Be A Judicial Office’s Best Friend (and Why I Don’t Care If We Aren’t)
I am a firm believer in accountability. If you do something you know is wrong, and you get caught, I do not want you “getting away with it.” When I was at MIT it used to make me crazy when someone who did something horribly unethical (like cheating on a test) went unpunished because the staff or faculty who caught them chose not to do anything. Sure, it was hard for me to be part of a system that meted out different punishments depending on who caught the student, but the worst part was that I would have to put students through our process who were often much less responsible than the others, and then watch them frequently work themselves into a suspension. I know that I can’t do anything about faculty and staff autonomy (nor do I think everything needs to be punished), but what I can do, and why I started College Judicial Consultants, was to ameliorate the difference in response when someone is brought into a system.
I was heavily involved in judicial affairs and believe that a good system can be transformative, really force someone to be reflective, and, ideally, help them get to a place where they won’t make the same mistake again. Sure, there are some people who are just dirtbags and the only thing they will try to learn is how to not get caught, but for the most part these are good young men and women who, for one reason or another, made a bad choice. Most of the time nobody else got hurt. Most of the time there isn’t a victim or intended victim. Most of the time it’s a person who had a melt down, and as a consequence took a shortcut. That being said, I believe academia should be an idealistic society that people strive for, so when someone violates the foundation of that society they should be accountable. The actual form of that accountability doesn’t matter really–fail a test, fail a paper, have a record, be on probation, be limited in the types of roles they can have within that community, etc. Some may even need to be sent away for a while to really come to terms with what’s important to them, and develop some coping tools to help make sure that a similar thing doesn’t happen again. The most important thing here is that the extent and nature of the accountability should fit the act and the actor—more than is needed for either is inherently unfair.
But how does a judicial board learn what sanction will be the most appropriate in each case? In reality, there are usually two ways that a hearing board can get to know a person and assess what happened. There is the written part (the complaint and the response) and the hearing. Assuming they carefully read and digest the written part, and at hearing ask every question worth asking, that usually takes around two hours (not counting deliberation). Two hours spent getting to know a person and understanding what makes them tick so the board can understand what went wrong. Two hours of reading a paper written while overcome by nerves, regret, and self-doubt, and 2 hours of watching some scared person in a room trying to speak to strangers about what is likely the lowest point in her or his life. Considering how little time that is, boards in general do a really good job and I remain impressed by the different ones I’ve come across over the years. Because it’s a hard job the boards are given things like school precedent and policy guidelines to help them make the best decision they can. Even then, it’s two hours to decide on something that will affect someone for the rest of his or her undergraduate career (and in some cases longer.)
Here’s the surprising part: two hours would be enough if the students going through the system were able to participate at their best.
A judicial officer should ideally be able to guide someone, or refer a person to someone who can guide them, through every step so that they can be ready to give the board enough information to make an accurate decision in the time they have. However, as I’ve said before, as long as a judicial officer is responsible for the system and accountable to the school, they cannot risk doing anything that could be seen as skewing a hearing one way or the other. As long as there are two parties (and there are always at least two parties) the “other” party would likely find the system unfair and that is the foot in the lawsuit door. Also, even if the judicial officer will help the student write his piece, there are potentially going to be facts that may not be relevant, but about which the judicial officer is obligated to act (e.g., drug use.) Even if the judicial office can be completely neutral, act only on what the student tells them to act upon, and can help them write the best response, the student has to believe that so that he or she can provide the right information. That’s a lot to ask of everyone, is, frankly, almost impossible, and judicial officers know that’s impossible so many of them have created resources to help students “outside” their office.
There are peer advocates, faculty/staff advisors, and other similar resources that students can use. Some of these are really good, but they are inherently flawed if the intention is to place the students on equal footing. Even when there is a really good advocate/advisor, their experience is with one or two cases (or even 10) in front of different boards with little likelihood of the cases being similar (e.g., fighting vs. plagiarism.) Plus, no matter how small the connection, the resources and the system are connected which, at best, will give a student going through it pause when it comes to being completely open. As an example, I had a student go through my system who was being accused of dealing marijuana that I’ll call Mark. His faculty advisor was a pretty big deal and intimidated a lot of the administration (which was only relevant leading up to the actual hearing.) He decided to use his academic advisor as his hearing advisor and that guy made my life hell advocating for Mark. He called my office yelling, accused me of racism (turns out Mark was Latino), and threatened to create a committee to look at the way I do things. He was sure the guy was innocent and when he helped him write his response it was an aggressive testimony to that innocence. It challenged the police conduct, subsequent investigations, and, naturally, me. It said that just by bringing the case to the hearing board we were risking ruining the life of this innocent man, and that we should be ashamed.
While this type of advocacy might have worked in some cases, the problem was that Mark was responsible. He was dealing, but he was dealing to friends so that he could make a little money and smoke for free. I knew that, the police knew that, and the board eventually learned that (because they were excellent). But now, because he had been so adamant in his denial, when he revealed his responsibility he became a liar. When he then tried to tell the board he “would never do it again” they had no reason to believe him. I do not know what dealing to his friends would have gotten him, but lying about it got him suspended for a year and cost him a substantial scholarship.
The problem is that Mark was stuck. He could go to a stranger for help and not know their obligations or motives and trust that he would get good advice, or he could go to someone he knows and with whom he has a relationship who would fight for him. Mark chose the later, but when he was talking to his advisor he couldn’t bring himself to admit he was buying in bulk. He admitted to occasionally smoking, but he was not willing to risk his relationship with the professor and that lead him down a path he did not need to take.
We are the solution to this type of problem. We know judicial systems, we have no obligation to anyone other than the client, and we can help the client maximize the impact of what gets seen in those two hours so that the board has the best chance to fully understand what happened. In other words, we give a student the tools he needs to get the right result in a system that works. The judicial officer handles the system and we make sure that the people using it are doing so correctly. We filter out redundancies, red herrings, assumptions masked as facts, bad tones, surprise and other elements that affect outcomes. We make it as pure as possible and then trust that the board hearing the issue does their job correctly so that the accountability matches the act AND the actor. We are the oil that stops the gears from grinding, and we are good at what we do.
Yet, when I tell former colleagues and faculty about it I am frequently met with “you’re going to help students get away with X” or “you’re going to teach them to beat Y!” Most of them, even when they aren’t negative, are cold to me because of what I’ve created. I get it. They have a hard job and the thought of someone “cheating” the system makes them angry. But that’s not what we’re doing. What we do is make sure that someone going through a good system gets the right (i.e., best for them) result for what they did wrong. If a judicial officer has done his job and has the support of his school, he has nothing to worry about. The point of a judicial system is to educate (as opposed to punish) so if someone gets less of a sanction than they could, but learns the same lesson everyone wins. (I would be HORRIBLY remiss if I didn’t point out that, to a person, the judicial officers I worked with are extraordinary, care deeply, and run good systems.)
However, if your system is flawed, biased, or unfair we will probably reveal those flaws. If a student’s rights are violated we will help our client point it out. If the other side is making it personal and trying to use their position to intimidate, we will help our client identify that, point that out, and demand equal treatment. If procedure is inherently unfair or not followed, we will help our client point it out. In other words, if your system is unfair we will do what we can to make sure the student doesn’t suffer because of it.
While we do not work at your school, we are essentially experienced advisors who understand the pedagogy and development theory in discipline systems and we use reflective interviewing to help the students do the right thing throughout the process. (Plus we talk to the parents!!!) Using us should allow the judicial officer to spend less time dealing with minutia, and free her up to focus on improving the system, doing programming, expanding your alternative resolution offerings, etc. We should be a judicial oficer’s best friend, and I’m always amazed when people can’t see that. Well, I’m not amazed when the people in positions of authority knowingly trample student rights and allow unjust outcomes can’t see it, but so far those have been the minority (although, that minority is a much bigger percentage than I anticipated.)
So, judicial officers, we are here. We have the same goal. We want a fair and impartial system to apply the facts of a case to each individual student to decide if anything happened which violated policy and, if so, applies the proper sanction. If we get involved we free you up to focus on the reasons you probably got into student affairs in the first place. Use us. Recommend us to those students who are either in serious trouble, or who keep asking you for things you cannot do. We know we can be good friends, but if you think we’re a threat then we probably are…and that’s okay. It’s probably your fault anyway.