Student organizations now represented by N.C. law
A new North Carolina state law known as the Student Administration and Equality (SAE) will allow students and student organizations to be represented by an attorney or non-attorney advocate if they are accused of a university violation.
Rep. John Bell, who sponsored the SAE act, believed it was unfair for students to be unable to receive representation when charged with a campus violation.
“You had individuals going in there, 19, 20, 21, years old and were targeted by the university administration,” said Bell. “A parent, a lawyer, an advisor, no one could be there with them to be sure they’re protected as students. No one was there to protect the students.”
However at ECU, students did receive some representation when they went in front of ECU’s Board of Conduct.
“They had a student advocate with them,” said Lynn Roeder, Dean of Students. “They didn’t have attorneys but they had an advocate.”
When students are accused of a violation at ECU and deny guilt, they go before the Board of Conduct. According to Roeder, the board consists of three students, one administrator and one faculty member.
The board decides if a student is guilty of the offense they are accused of.
While attorneys were not explicitly prevented from representing a student at ECU, student disciplinary processes were usually handled without them.
“It was rare that we ever had an attorney in here at all,” said Roeder.
Roeder believes that adding attorneys to the disciplinary process at ECU would take away an opportunity for students to learn from their mistakes.
“The whole process is not to be adversarial,” said Roeder. “We know students make mistakes and what we want to do it make sure we’re able to help them make better decisions so that’s why we never had lawyers.”
Robert Shibley is the senior vice president of the Foundation of Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), an organization that lobbied for the SAE act. He believes the act is important because it discourages administrative abuses.
“Too many times FIRE has seen procedures be ignored by the colleges and universities that guarantee them to students,” said Shibley. “It’s one thing to ignore procedures when you are facing an 18 or 19 year old student in the hearing room…it’s another thing when there’s an attorney on the other side who knows how procedures are supposed to work.”
Roeder said she thinks ECU has done a good job of being fair to students going before the Board of Conduct.
“At East Carolina, and I can’t speak for all the institutions in the UNC system, but we truly believe in student’s due process rights,” Roeder said. “We’re not into tricking students. We want them to understand the decisions they make and how it affects their future.”
Roeder is also concerned about the potential costs to students of hiring an attorney.
“Probably my biggest concern is students hiring lawyers to come to these meetings when they have a drinking ticket. They’re going to spend money for that attorney,” Roeder said. “Let’s says it’s in a hearing, hearings run hours and hours long, they’re going to have to pay that attorney too.”
Jared Picot, a sophomore education major, is concerned that certain students may not even be able to afford an attorney.
Some students, “don’t have the money to access a good lawyer,” said Picot. “If everyone can get one then it’s fair.”
While some students may not be able to afford an attorney, the new law also allows for a non-attorney advocate.
“People…may be able to find pro bono legal counsel,” Shibley said. “They may be able to work with friends or a relative who have some knowledge about procedure, even if they’re not attorneys, because the SAE act provides for an attorney or a non-attorney advisor of their choice.”
Shibley also suggested another solution.
“We’d like to see some of the law schools in North Carolina step up through their clinics and provide student legal representation to students who are accused of campus offenses,” Shibley said.
This writer can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.