Column: Office of Student Conduct has potential for abuse

The Office of Student Conduct is a well known organization at our university. If you get caught drinking underage, messing with a fire alarm or doing anything else that violates the student code of conduct, these are the people who will hear and weigh in your case. If found guilty or responsible, they can approve a variety of sanctions against you, ranging from community service and fines to suspension and expulsion. 

Of course, the Office of Student Conduct is an important aspect of keeping the peace here at South Carolina. They may be harsher than many of us would prefer on certain issues, but their goal is to keep the school a respectable and safe place. However, when looking into the way the office handles investigations into student conduct, a number of issues arise that could have potentially disastrous consequences for students.

For one, the Office of Student Conduct doesn’t appear to have a clear way of eliminating bias in investigations, or at least not in the same way a criminal or civil court handles such matters. Secondly, all matters related to appeals occur in-house, meaning a student appealing his or her case faces just another rung in the chain of command, rather than another system divorced from potential conflicts of interest related to the case. Finally, the burden of proof in cases handled by the office is much lower than that in our criminal justice system.

Any of these factors alone would be enough to raise questions about the conduct process at the University of South Carolina, but, taken together, they paint a picture of a system ripe for abuse. This is not to say that abuse is common in the conduct process, but, rather, the potential for such abuse is exponentially higher than if the university took steps to reform and amend the current process. Another caveat, this article is not looking into the already well-known and publicized issues with how sexual assault, relationship violence and other Title IX violations are handled at the university level. These issues, aside from their publicity, are extremely nuanced and complicated, and are outside of the scope of this article.

Bias is difficult to remove from any any man-made system. Bias permeates all of our lives, shaping how we live and see the world. Yet, bias can have serious consequences in any system that’s goal is to fairly judge another person and their actions. Systems, like the US criminal justice system, seek to eliminate bias via jury selection, with lawyers for both parties working to eliminate jurors from jury pools who may be incapable of fairly judging their client. While such a method isn’t perfect by any means, it is at least a plan put in place to lower the likelihood of outright bias. Our own Student Conduct Office, on the other hand, offers little in the way of outright protection from bias.

If a complaint or violation of the Student Code of conduct is reported to the office, an investigation is carried out to verify whether or not the accused student is guilty of such an act. This can either be through a Conduct Hearing or, if the student requests or is appealing the results of the Conduct Hearing, the Carolina Judicial Council (CJC). In the Conduct Hearing, the student has an “individual meeting with [a] hearing officer.” This is so the officer “can address whether a Code of Conduct violation occurred [and] if so, what sanctions are appropriate.” If a student decides the CJC would be more fair, or if the student disagrees with the outcome of the Conduct Hearing, they may choose to have the CJC preside over their case instead. The CJC is a more formal setting than a Conduct Hearing, with more procedures in place to help present all evidence from both sides before a verdict. In both of these cases, there is no jury, only a hearing officer in the case of a conduct hearing or a “panel of 5 students, staff [and] faculty.” This is where the issues of bias could arise.

With the hearing officer, it is a one-on-one meeting with an individual representative of the Office of Student conduct. While this officer may receive training on how to avoid bias in these meetings, there is no vetting of any significant caliber to remove officers from meetings in which the officer may carry in bias. Furthermore, while an officer may have an ethical duty to avoid bias in these meetings, this, in no way, can actually prevent an officer from being biased if they so choose. The CJC suffers from similar problems. Members of the panel are not jurors, they are recruited into this position, and while they, again, may receive training on how to avoid being biased and have an ethical responsibility not to be, there is no clear vetting process as there is with jury selection. This lack of a clear protection from bias is troubling, as students may be given a raw deal if faced with an officer or panel that does not follow through on their ethical obligation to avoid bias. This problem merely compounds itself when going through the process of appeals.

When appealing decisions made by the Office of Student Conduct, a student has few options. When appealing a conduct hearing, the student may have a CJC panel convened to hear the case. If you choose to appeal the CJC verdict, however, you are out of options unless “the original conduct administrator/council committed a procedural error in the case which significantly prejudiced the findings; and/or, ... New evidence, which could not have been available at the time of the hearing, and which is material to the outcome of the case, is available.” If either of these is the case, the appeal is then sent to the Vice President of Student Affairs.

This process has one major, glaring issue with it, all appeals are handled by the next person or organization up in the chain of command. Conduct hearing to CJC, CJC to Vice President of Student Affairs. This is unusual in that appeals are handled entirely within the Office of Student Affairs. In no case will your appeal be considered by a body outside the Office or outside the school. In contrast to both criminal and civil cases in the US, defendants are able to appeal to a higher court. This higher court, in the case of appealing a state court decision on the federal level, has no direct link to the lower court other than that its decisions, in most cases, supersede those of the lower court.

In theory, this helps prevent bias and offers a more fair reading of the law. Such a situation of a lack of an outside appeal leaves students with little recourse, outside of litigation, against potential institutional bias. Furthermore, if there are issues of bias in the US justice system by either lawyers or judges, there are methods of addressing such misconduct. While not always successful, there are at least options available to defendants who feel that they’ve been robbed of justice by bias. There are no such checks and balances at the University of South Carolina. The lack of bias protection in student conduct proceedings, paired with inability to appeal outside the system can allow bias to win out over proper justice for students. If you didn’t think this situation could be any worse, then consider that the school holds complaints and potential violations of the Student Code of Conduct to a much lower burden of proof than criminal trials in the US.

The Office of Student conduct utilizes a burden of proof known as “preponderance of the evidence.” This differs from the burden of proof required in criminal court, known as beyond a reasonable doubt. Preponderance of the evidence essentially means that “that more th[a]n 50% of the evidence points to something.” This compares to a criminal court’s burden of evidence in that with beyond a reasonable doubt, “A reasonable doubt exists when a juror cannot say with moral certainty that a person is guilty.” Basically, it's a game of probabilities. With preponderance of the evidence as the standard, to find the defendant guilty, the jury must find that there is over a 50 percent chance that the defendant committed the crime based on the evidence. Beyond a reasonable doubt goes a step past this, requiring that the probability that the defendant committed crime be much higher, closer, but not quite at, 100 percent.

This distinction is particularly important to a student facing the Office of Student Conduct. Say, for example, that the person accusing you of the crime remembers the particular incident better than you do. Their attention to detail, even if it is false or simply a misunderstanding of the situation, can weigh heavily against your correct, but blurry, memory of the situation. Not just that, but say you are accused by a group of people who have similar stories, one hazy memory against many. Of course, such a situation could prove to be an issue with defendants even with a higher burden of proof, but the weight of such a hazy, or clear, memory matters much more when the burden of proof is lower. This lower standard of evidence, coupled with the intrinsic issues of bias and a lack of institution separation during appeals can leave students vulnerable when dealing with the Office of Student Conduct.

You may still be asking, why should the Office of Student Conduct be held to such a high standard? Aren’t they just a school organization, not a legal one, after all? True, the Office of Student Conduct can’t levy criminal charges, nor can it have you arrested for a violation of the student code of conduct. However, sanctions by the Office of Student Conduct can be unbelievably serious and massively impact your life. Take expulsion for example. If expelled from the university, that remains permanently on your transcript and in your conduct record. This can massively impact your ability to apply to another school.

Suspensions are also serious, even though they are removed from your transcript after the suspension is completed, they remain on your conduct record permanently. This can, depending on the particular reason for the suspension, prevent you from getting into graduate, medical or law school. Even more minor disciplinary sanctions can have an impact, with anything below suspension or expulsion remaining in your conduct record for six years. In short, sanctions by the Office of Student Conduct can be very, very serious. You might not go to jail, but they can stick with you for years and potentially damage your future prospects.

This makes it extremely important that the Office of Student Conduct take serious steps to reform its process. While we lack clear-cut evidence of bias and institutional abuse, that’s not the point. If there are glaring issues that could result in abuse, they should be addressed before that potential becomes reality. If the U.S. nuclear arsenal could be accidentally launched due to issues with its procedures, that is something that should be addressed before something terrible happens. While issues with the Student Conduct Office are far less serious, the central idea still stands — fix issues before they arise, rather than after people get hurt.

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