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Students allege mistreatment from SJP staff

By Molly Chiu     4/24/14 2:40pm

In recent weeks, following several student suspensions and expulsions, rumors have circulated that Student Judicial Programs mistreated students during interviews regarding drug issues on campus. However, SJP has denied these allegations and claims the interviews were conducted according to procedure.

In recent weeks, following several student suspensions and expulsions, rumors have circulated that Student Judicial Programs mistreated students during interviews regarding drug issues on campus. However, SJP has denied these allegations and claims the interviews were conducted according to procedure.

A student involved in the proceedings, whose identity will be kept anonymous in order to protect his privacy, said he was given one hour’s notice of the meeting with SJP. Then during the interview, he claims he was bullied, threatened and scared into submission. He recalled a particular exchange with Associate Dean of Undergraduates Don Ostdiek, in which Ostdiek cursed at him. 

“After I said I wasn’t comfortable with a question and that I wanted to talk to my parents and lawyer, Ostdiek said, ‘I don’t give a shit how you feel. You have to answer my question,’” the student said. “They were profane, rude and completely unprofessional.”

Director of SJP Lisa Zollner said she and members of her office do not curse at students. However, Zollner said they are thorough in their investigation and interviews with students can get heated at times, especially if she has evidence to prove a student is not telling the truth.

“When I’m given information that’s a factual misrepresentation, I question it, and I prod,” Zollner said. “That process can be very uncomfortable for the student. I wouldn’t expect someone who has been through that process to have good things to say about it. Although students might feel uncomfortable when being asked about their behavior, that does not indicate a flaw in the process.”

However, the student said the evidence against him consisted only of hearsay, and that he believes he is innocent of the charges brought against him.

“They painted a picture about me that wasn’t true and then didn’t give me a chance to refute it,” the student said.

SJP handles cases regarding the enforcement of the Alcohol Policy and the Code of Student Conduct. Zollner said cases generally come to her office through Rice University Police Department reports, but students and faculty can also file reports directly.

Although each case is different, Zollner said the typical first step in SJP’s investigation is to meet with the accused student. During the interview with a student, a member of SJP will ask the student to describe the situation and offer an explanation of events. Zollner said the student is welcomed to speak in their own defense during the interview.

“They’re not criticized or sanctioned for offering a robust defense,” Zollner said. “They can offer different interpretations of the facts.”

However, the student said he feels the entire process was unfair.

“Even at the slightest move of disobedience, SJP will come cracking down with injustice,” the student said. “It’s not innocent until proven guilty at Rice. There’s no due process in any way, shape or form.”

Zollner said students do receive fair treatment and due process during SJP investigations.

“Due process is being given notice of what you’re being accused of, an opportunity to be heard in full – which might include submitting statements from witnesses – and a decision based on available information,” Zollner said. “There’s also the appeal, which I don’t have a say in.”

According to Dean of Undergraduates John Hutchinson, students may appeal SJP rulings to him if they believe them unfair.

“Any time concerns are brought to me, I follow up on those to make sure we’re following appropriate procedures and practices,” Hutchinson said. “Any student who has been found in violation and feels there has been a problem in process can appeal to me under the Code of Student Conduct.”

This student has since left the university and said he will not appeal his case.

“I miss Rice, and I miss the people at Rice, but I would never go back even if I could,” the student said. “I don’t want to be ruled under an oppressive administration that is quick to judge, is quick to incriminate and does not adhere to its own standards of excellence.”

The student said he felt he and other students were made to be scapegoats for larger drug issues at Rice.

“SJP seems to believe these drug incidents are isolated and under wraps,” the student said. “They seem to believe that if they can expel a few students who are up to no good – students who are corrupting the rest of the stellar, straight-edged Rice community – then their drug problem will go away. Unfortunately, they are sadly mistaken. SJP is targeting a select minority, thinking they can eradicate a much larger issue, an issue that’s societally ingrained and omnipresent.”

Ostdiek said SJP does not have a mandate from the administration to crack down on drugs at Rice.

“SJP acts when there is sufficient, credible evidence to move forward,” Ostdiek said.

Depending on the nature of the case, SJP will sometimes prepare a letter detailing the charges to present to the student at the end of their meeting with a student. However, this procedure can vary. In some cases, SJP may learn additional information in the meeting, which would amend the charge letter. Additionally, SJP may decide after the interview to not pursue charges. 

At the end of the interview with a student, Zollner said SJP will generally present the student with a charge letter detailing the evidence against them. After a student receives a charge letter, he or she has a period during which they can review their case file and formulate a response to SJP, which may include requests for SJP to interview other sources.

Finally, Zollner said she or the SJP conduct officer investigating the case will review all the information and determine an appropriate sanction if they believe a violation has occurred. All SJP decisions made come directly from the person investigating the case, according to Zollner.

“We are not directed to decide whether a violation occurred, nor directed as to appropriate sanctions, from anywhere else on campus,” Zollner said. “From day one, my instruction was to make the decision that I feel is right. At the end of the day, the position that I can defend is the position I know is the right one.”

The student said he felt Zollner should not be deciding the verdict on her own and that SJP should have additional oversight and increased transparency.

“Zollner is who decides,” the student said. “She is the prosecutor. She is the judge. She is the jury. That’s not justice. It’s all her opinion, and there’s nothing to refute that.”

Hutchinson said sanctions determined by SJP represent the standards of the university.

“They are not a standalone institution,” Hutchinson said. “Their decisions are decisions of the university.”

The student said he thinks it was unfair that he was not allowed to have a third party, such as a parent or lawyer, present in the room during the interview. 

“They are incredibly hypocritical,” the student said. “They tout a culture of care, but they’re quick to deny basic rights to us.”

Zollner said, during discussions between SJP and an accused student, third parties are generally not allowed in the room. However, according to Zollner, this is not a written policy and in certain circumstances, exceptions could be made.

“We treat students like adults,” Zollner said. “It’s absolutely right for a student to draw support from friends, masters, parents or pastors, but when it comes time for disciplinary process, that conversation is between me and that student.”

Other students have raised concerns that the interview conversation with SJP cannot be recorded.

According to the Sept. 6, 2013 version of the Code of Student Conduct, judicial proceedings cannot be recorded. This change and others were made between May and September of 2013.

“Unauthorized recording of administrative, faculty or judicial meetings is prohibited,” the Code of Student Conduct currently states. 

Previously, only unauthorized surveillance and photography were banned. 

The Code allows for unannounced changes to be made by the Dean of Undergraduates and the Assistant Dean, although the position of Assistant Dean no longer exists. 

University Court Chair Brian Baran said he is concerned about changes being made to the Code without student notification. 

“If the Code of Student Conduct is being changed without students knowing about it, it undermines the judicial system we have here,” Baran, a Duncan College junior, said. “It makes it unclear what we can really hold students accountable for, because students should know what the code says and, realistically, they can’t be expected to be checking frequently to see whether it has changed.” 

Baran also said he believes students ought to be involved in the decision-making process that leads to substantial changes to the Code. 

“This is a process where students need to be informed,” Baran said. “If this university truly values its tradition of student self-governance and actually believes that it is a student-governed university, then it needs to be consulting students on any substantive changes.”

Baran said he encourages students to appeal if they are concerned about the judicial process.

“If the wrong outcome was reached or they were treated unfairly, an appeal is the most direct path to resolving that,” Baran said.

Baran said he wants students to know that not all information regarding these cases is publicly available to students.

“I would ... encourage students who aren’t directly affected to remember that they don’t always have all of the information that’s out there, so we shouldn’t really be jumping to conclusions,” Baran said. “Students should always ask themselves whether there might be more to a story.”

Under the medical amnesty policy, if students using alcohol or illegal substances seek help from EMS, it will be treated as a medical issue, not a disciplinary issue, according to Hutchinson.

“There should never be any concern for students calling EMS,” Hutchinson said. “What the amnesty policy does not cover is the provision or sale of hard alcohol or illegal substances such as narcotics or hallucinogens. Students in those instances are not given amnesty because that is the opposite of the culture of care. In that case, students are endangering other students by providing them with substances that may harm them.”


Thresher News Editors Yasna Haghdoost and Andrew Ta contributed to this article.

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