Lawsuit doesn’t prompt changes to student-wide judiciary some critics hoped for

UB officials say current student judiciary system adequately protects students’ rights

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Despite criticism over the summer from a state Supreme Court judge who ruled against the university in a lawsuit, UB has not changed its Student-Wide Judiciary policy to allow students the right to a representative, and its director said there will be no further changes to the office’s policies in the foreseeable future. 

After Tyrone Hill, a sophomore sociology major, successfully sued the university for denying him a fair hearing, Hill’s lawyer expected UB to change its Student-Wide Judiciary policies. The lawsuit came after a year of clamoring by some in the UB community who criticized the SWJ for its policy prohibiting student representatives to speak or defend students facing disciplinary suspension or expulsion.

In July 2017, an administrative panel found Hill guilty of violating the university’s code of conduct and gave him two years of disciplinary probation and exclusion from on-campus housing. 

UB pursued disciplinary action even though none of Hill’s teammates filed an official complaint, according to Joshua Lippes, lead attorney for the student-run nonprofit Sub-Board I, who sued the university as a private attorney on Hill’s behalf. 

Hill said he was innocent of the alleged offense –– pointing an airsoft gun at a group of teammates –– and Lippes filed a lawsuit against the university to reverse the decision. The case eventually reached the New York State Appellate Division, and in July, the court decided in Hills’ favor, reversing UB’s decision.

 The court opinion condemned UB and reminded all colleges and universities, “particularly state-affiliated” schools, of the “obligation to conduct student disciplinary proceedings in a manner that [follows the] fundamental notions of due process for the accused.” 

Lippes said he interpreted the court’s decision as support for his argument that state universities like UB have to uphold student rights to due process. But UB spokesperson Kate McKenna declined to comment on the university’s response to the Hill decision, and Director of Student Conduct and Advocacy Elizabeth Lidano told The Spectrum there will be no further changes to her office’s policy in the foreseeable future.

 Nearly four months after the judgment, the only change that the SWJ made is to record all administrative hearings, according to Lidano.

Lidano said the decision to record all administrative hearings was made after SUNY gave recommendations to state campuses in April and that it is not a direct result of Hill’s case. 

Lidano said students are not allowed a representative to speak on their behalf because students are expected to take “full responsibility for their actions.”

“The student conduct process is not a legal process. It is an educational process under which students speak on their own behalf, to take responsibility for their behavior, or explain why they are not responsible, and to learn from it,” Lidano wrote in an email. “SWJ hearing officers who are in law school are trained on the student conduct process which is not a legal process.”

Lippes thinks the change in policy benefits SWJ more than the students. UB did not record the initial SWJ hearing and had no evidence that his due process was upheld. 

“I’m disappointed in the way the university treats its students. I’m disappointed the only thing they decided was that they needed to keep a record of its hearings … obviously just to protect themselves from being sued again,” Lippes said. “I had anticipated that there would be more rights or the process would be conducted more fairly this year, and I know it hasn’t because of the interactions I’ve had [with students] so far.” 

Lidano said during SWJ hearings, the student justice reviews each case to ensure fairness to the student. She also said administrators who conduct administrative hearing cases and appeals are trained in a student conduct process.

From Aug. 1, 2017 to July 31, 2018, SWJ heard 338 cases, four resulting in expulsion and 20 resulting in suspension. Since Aug. 1 of this year, SWJ has heard 73 cases resulting in one expulsion and one suspension, according to Lidano.

 All students who went through the judiciary process had to defend themselves against law students acting as prosecutors or UB administrators, some of whom have legal backgrounds and are trained in the student conduct process.

Student representatives can help students prepare for their hearings, but cannot speak during hearings, as a defense attorney would in a legal proceeding. Or, students can spend thousands of dollars on a private lawyer for advice, but again, the attorneys cannot speak on their behalf.

For Joe Wolf, a ’17 UB alum and former SWJ chief justice, UB’s disciplinary process is problematic. During his time as chief justice, Wolf started the UB Civil Liberties Union, which has fought to pair students with students in UB’s law school to act as defenders. 

Other schools in the area, including Buffalo State College and Daemen College, allow students to have a student representative to speak on their behalf during hearings. Wolf said it’s unfair that SWJ allows law students to act as prosecutors, but not as student advocates. He said UB is missing out on an experiential learning opportunity, which is also negatively affecting students.

“The deck is totally stacked against these students. Most of these students have never been in trouble or defended themselves, yet they have to argue against students two years into law school or UB officials. I wish anyone good luck in that situation,” Wolf said. “No matter how many times I had this conversation with SWJ administrators, they still wouldn’t change it, so I’m not surprised with the lack of changes within the office.”

Wolf said he suggested changes at numerous SWJ meetings and talked with Lidano and other administrators about starting a student defender program. 

“I just want to ensure that students are getting a fair shake, that they actually have the ability to walk into that room and defend themselves well and that the deck isn’t stacked against them,” Wolf said. 

 Lidano said SWJ upholds students’ due process and that every hearing is handled fairly. 

“In any university disciplinary procedure, one of the highest priorities is to safeguard the student's right to due process,” Lidano wrote in an email. “The University at Buffalo’s disciplinary procedures afford the accused student the chance to have a fair hearing and present his or her own position, information and explanation. There are no plans to change the policy beyond what was already stated. We feel our process meets the necessary elements of due process.”

Max Kalnitz is the senior news editor and can be reached at max.kalnitz@ubspectrum.com and on Twitter @Max_Kalnitz