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California and the West

Quality of Campus Justice Varies Widely

Rules: Most colleges surveyed use secretive panels to handle student misdeeds. Results differ.

May 10, 2000|Special to The Times

With reports of misconduct on the rise at many California colleges and universities, campus judicial systems are quietly handling thousands of cases each year ranging from plagiarism and petty larceny to physical assault and rape.

Drunken Pomona College students went joy riding in the dean's golf cart. Chico State dorm residents were nabbed in a drug sting. A pair of UC Santa Cruz students, dubbed Bonnie and Clyde, were arrested for two armed robberies.

When students are accused of such offenses, the stakes are high because costly educations, careers and school reputations are hanging in the balance. In some cases, students hire lawyers--and one enlisted a handwriting expert--for campus disciplinary hearings.

To mete out punishments, virtually every school uses a quasi-judicial arm that convenes behind closed doors. Students and faculty who have little legal training serve as investigators, prosecutors and judges. They usually operate independent of police and courts, and seldom refer cases for criminal action.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Friday May 12, 2000 Home Edition Part A Part A Page 3 Metro Desk 2 inches; 42 words Type of Material: Correction
Campus justice-- A chart accompanying a Wednesday story about campus judicial systems incorrectly listed the number of violent sexual assaults at Pomona College in 1998-99. Pomona reported no sexual assaults that school year. There were 14 sexual assaults reported on the 15 campuses surveyed.

The maximum penalty imposed by campus courts is expulsion. But records and interviews show that the quality of justice and severity of sanctions vary from case to case and place to place, raising what critics say are fundamental questions of fairness.

At some schools, throwing a punch can result in as little as counseling, while at UC Riverside a student is suspended one quarter for each blow. Penalties for date rape can be as severe as expulsion or as lenient as writing a reflective essay.

Additionally, these secretive systems deprive students and parents of information about misconduct, and sometimes crime, on campus. Of 15 public and private schools surveyed for The Times, only UC Davis and USC publicly report details of misconduct hearings, although both withhold students' names. Only a handful routinely release statistics, and two keep none at all.

University administrators acknowledge that their judicial systems are not perfect, but they say they provide a swift means of maintaining order, ethical standards and codes of conduct. They also say the law requires them to protect the privacy of victims and perpetrators whose futures might be harmed by publicity.

"A lot of them are good students, and they panicked and made a bad decision at a hard time in their life," said Nancy Morrison, assistant to the dean of students at Stanford University.

The federal Crime Awareness and Campus Security Act of 1990 requires campus security departments to compile and publish statistics on crime, without differentiating between students and nonstudents. There is no similar requirement for schools to reveal the extent and type of student misconduct handled internally.

As part of a six-month examination of campus judicial systems, reporters from the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism obtained previously unpublished statistics and interviewed officials. The survey found:

* Eight of 13 schools that tally misconduct cases report an increase in recent years, which officials say is part of a long-term trend.

* The number of cases at each school ranges from about a dozen to more than a thousand per year, and the vast majority of students are found culpable and disciplined.

* Cheating and alcohol or drug use were the most common offenses, and each has increased recently at half of the eight schools that broke down violations.

* Student conduct boards resolved almost 300 cases of physical assaults and threats of violence last year. In addition, they dealt with at least 16 complaints of violent sexual assault, with eight reported by UC Berkeley.

There is often a gap between the number of sexual assaults reported to campus women's centers and the number appearing in official university crime or misconduct statistics. At UC Irvine, for instance, no rapes were reported to law enforcement in the 1998-99 school year, but the women's support center tabulated 15.

Noting that rape is an underreported crime, university officials say student victims often are reluctant to go through the pain and stress of pursuing either a misconduct case or a criminal prosecution.

"There is no doubt that colleges are underreporting crimes, especially rape," said J. Lance Gilmer, director of the student conduct office at UC Riverside. He said he knows of half a dozen alleged rape cases last year that were not handled by his office and did not show up in campus crime statistics.

Since the founding of America's first colleges, campuses generally have considered misconduct an in-house affair to be quietly resolved to protect the integrity of the institutions and the privacy of students. But, across the nation, campus courts recently have come under fire for allegedly failing to protect the very people they are designed to safeguard.

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