Thursday, May 10, 2012

College students protest against punishments based on 'preponderance of the evidence' standard for non-sex offenses

The Wesleyan Student Assembly passed a Student Judicial Reform Resolution Sunday that recommends increasing the standard of proof from “fair preponderance” to “clear and convincing evidence” for student disciplinary hearings. This would apply to all infractions of the Code of Non-Academic Conduct, excluding cases of sexual misconduct, harassment, and abuse. (The reason for the exclusion, presumably, is the mandate of  Department of Education's April 4, 2011, "Dear Colleague" letter.")

A student named Joe O’Donnell ’13 began the initiative last year to increase the standard of proof with an online petition that was circulated to students.

“The [University’s] current standard, ‘preponderance of the evidence,’ requires that Student Judicial Board (SJB) members only find ‘more likely than not’ that a violation occurred,” the petition reads. “This standard is typically applied in civil cases, and only requires slightly more than 50% certainty. The proposed higher standard, ‘clear and convincing evidence,’ which is between preponderance and beyond a reasonable doubt, requires that SJB members find ‘substantially more likely than not,’ that a violation occurred.”

Scott Elias ’14, the primary author of the resolution, said: “The issue can be simplified to whether Wesleyan as an institution believes in innocence until proven guilty, or guilty until proven innocent, with current policy reflecting the latter.” Mr. Elias noted: “After the administration proved to be unresponsive to a reasoned debate grounded in intellect, practical idealism, and student interest, we carried this effort through a resolution—the only means left to reflect our belief that, in a community that adheres to principles of justice, basic liberties, like due process, are rights secured and not subject to political bargaining or to the calculus of social interests,” he said.

According to the school's student newspaper: "Innocent students can be found guilty under the standard of 'preponderance of the evidence' if, for example, seven students are in a room and five of them are found to have been drinking. The remaining two students would be considered 'more likely than not' to have consumed alcohol as well. Under the University’s current standard of proof, the two students who may or may not have been drinking would be found guilty."

The picture painted by the students at the college is dire.  We have one question: is there any reason why the students' concerns shouldn't apply with at least equal force to claims of sexual misconduct, which are the most serious that a school's disciplinary board adjudicates?  We can't think of any.