Student discipline bill gets first hearing in N.D. legislature
A North Dakota legislative committee took no action Monday on a bill that would give the state's university students the right to an attorney during disciplinary hearings.
The proposal, Senate Bill 2150, would give students and student organizations the right to an attorney or non-attorney advocate -- hired at the student's or organization's expense -- who could fully participate in the hearing process. The right would not extend to accusations of academic dishonesty.
The Senate Judiciary Committee did not make any recommendation on the bill Monday after a 90-minute hearing, said bill sponsor Sen. Ray Holmberg, R-Grand Forks. An audio tape of the meeting wasn't made available until late Monday afternoon.
Sherry Warner Seefeld, mother of former UND student Caleb Warner, testified in favor of the bill. Caleb Warner was banned from campus for three years after being accused of sexually assaulting another student in 2010, even though he was never charged with a crime. Police later charged his accuser with making a false report to law enforcement, and sanctions against Warner were eventually lifted.
Warner Seefeld, in prepared remarks, described her son's disciplinary hearing process, stating that his attorney would have been removed from the room if he spoke or participated in the hearing.
"Imagine that," Warner Seefeld said, according to the prepared remarks. "A 23-year-old must defend himself against an accusation which in the criminal justice system is a felony and has mandatory prison time attached, with only 11 days of preparation, in an audio-recorded hearing where anything he said could be used against him in a criminal court."
The proposal could bring additional costs for the North Dakota University System, according to testimony.
Murray Sagsveen, NDUS chief of staff and ethics officer, said the bill could mean an additional attorney, administrative law judge and court reporter at both UND and NDSU, as well as for the other institutions, according to an email provided by NDUS spokeswoman Linda Donlin. A fiscal note states the estimated cost during the current two-year cycle would be $2.5 million in salaries, benefits and equipment, an estimate based on 1,000 hearings per semester.
Holmberg said committee members were skeptical of that dollar figure.
Sagsveen added that NDUS representatives had a "very productive" meeting last week with the bill sponsors, and that the bill will likely be brought up during a Thursday meeting of the State Board of Higher Education.
Christopher Wilson, chief counsel for NDUS in Fargo, said they are reviewing the codes of all NDUS institutions "to ensure there is an appropriate post-appeal process, which could be used by students in the event that newly discovered evidence indicates that an erroneous decision was made."
Wilson said limiting the participation of attorneys in disciplinary hearings is a "common practice" in higher education, and that the disciplinary process could become more complicated with the proposed change.
"What was once a straightforward educational process could evolve into a complicated legal hearing," he said. "We are simply concerned that there might be unintended consequences from this law."
While the bill doesn't cite specific crimes or offenses, other than to say the right to an attorney doesn't extend to accusations of academic dishonesty, the proposal does come as several high-profile cases raise debate over sexual assault on college campuses. The Obama Administration established a task force and a campaign last year on the issue, and a U.S. Department of Justice report found that college-age women had a higher rate of rape and sexual assault victimization than other age groups.
"We're always conscious about protecting victims' rights while making sure that we have a fundamentally fair hearing," said State Sen. Kelly Armstrong, R-Dickinson, a bill sponsor. "I think that's all we're after."
The Holmberg bill was supported by the North Dakota Student Association and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. Joe Cohn, the latter group's legislative and policy director, wrote that colleges and universities operate "what amounts to their own parallel justice system while failing to provide the meaningful due process protections guaranteed in our nation's courts" and that students could be forced to represent themselves against experienced deans, administrators and university attorneys.
"For those students, having legal representation during the few hours of a hearing could make a difference that will last decades," Cohn wrote in prepared testimony to the committee.