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O'Colly Investigative Team: How student conduct works

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If you’re a student at Oklahoma State and you violate the student code of conduct, you could end up defending yourself in a mysterious investigative process.

When a student is accused of violating the student code of conduct, he or she goes through the student conduct process.

The Student Conduct Education and Administration office has documented 652 instances of prohibited conduct in the 2015-16 academic year, according to university records.

Lee Bird, the vice president of Student Affairs, said most cases that end up in student conduct are informal meetings for drug and alcohol violations.

This academic year, OSU student conduct recorded 398 alcohol-related violations and 111 drug-related violations as of April 23, according to university records.

Most students admit responsibility if they are accused of an offense, Bird said.

“Most of the time I think students are pretty honest about what they did,” Bird said. “If students are pretty honest about that, I think we’re pretty fair in terms of the sanctions.”

Once a complaint is filed against a student and it is determined a student code violation might have occurred, the student is notified in writing of the alleged violations against him or her.

There are three categories of meetings within student conduct. Student conduct meetings are where most cases are handled. At the meeting, no type of suspension or expulsion is possible, and students meet one on one with a conduct officer.  

“Unless it’s a very serious case and/or a student opts for a hearing, it’s generally done by a single administrative officer,” Bird said.

It is not standard practice to allow students to bring attorneys with them to meetings or hearings, Bird said.

However, OSU’s new student code of conduct, which was revised last summer, allows students to bring attorneys to student conduct meetings and hearings.

“I think there was a particular desire to have it for organizations,” Bird said. “That’s probably where it started, and it leaked over into individual hearings.”

The OSU A&M Board of Regents also approved a code of conduct for student organizations last summer.

Aleigha Mariott, coordinator of student conduct, said in an email that while making revisions to the student code of conduct, it was decided that creating a separate code of conduct for student organizations “would better fit the needs of the student organizations.”

Stillwater attorney Cheryl Ramsey said she represents about 10 to 15 clients in student conduct each year in informal meetings, compared to two to three hearing panel hearings, she said.

Ramsey, who has been representing students since 1984, said her job is mainly to direct students on what to say, make them feel more at ease and ensure they stay in school.

“The client is much more comfortable knowing I’m there, whether I’m really doing anything or not, to write them notes, that kind of thing,” Ramsey said.

In more serious cases, a panel of three disinterested members — a faculty member, staff member and a student — hears the case and makes a decision about whether the student “more likely than not” committed the offense.

Students who volunteer to serve on the board go through 40 to 50 hours of training before they hear a case, Bird said. The training covers sexual violence, hazing, the student code of conduct and due process, among other topics. OSU also checks the academic standing of students who volunteer to be on the conduct board, she said.

About 40 people are trained and a panel is drawn from the pool of trainees, Bird said.

Student conduct hearings are different from court proceedings in standards of proof and an attorney’s role.

Students, especially in an informal student conduct meeting, are typically presumed to be guilty of something, Ramsey said.

“But the point of OSU student conduct is to make sure if (students) are going down the wrong path, we need to straighten them out now,” she said. “And the situation where there is a hearing, the proof is so different than beyond a reasonable doubt, it’s almost nothing.

“So it’s kind of like a preliminary hearing situation from the standpoint of, all you have to do is prove a crime was committed and they probably committed that crime, and that’s it.”

Attorneys are more involved in court cases in terms of being able to speak on behalf of their client. In a hearing panel hearing, the client does most of the talking, Ramsey said. However, she said she is able to prepare students before the hearing, and during the hearing she can write them notes or make quiet comments to direct them.

Despite the differences between the student conduct and court processes, Ramsey said she believes students are given fair due process rights.

“In all these years, I haven’t seen that it’s been off the charts type thing,” Ramsey said. “And I’ve had kids that have been kicked out of school, obviously, too. But those are really serious situations, and some I agreed with and some I didn’t.”

Sanctions for offenses can include a variety of options from written warnings to residence hall changes to expulsion.

Bird said in some cases, the sanctions mirror the offense the student committed.

“In some cases, if people have vandalized something, they may also be asked to clean something up,” Bird said.

If it is found that a student more likely than not committed a more serious offense such as a physical or sexual assault, he or she could be suspended or expelled, Bird said.

“Often times, it’s just kind of a screw up,” Bird said. “You did something, you feel badly about what you did, you acknowledge what you did and to the extent that students do that, unless it’s a serious case, generally it’s going to be something less than a suspension or expulsion.”

If student conduct finds it more likely than not that a student committed an offense, a note may be put on the student’s transcript, Bird said.

Bird has the power to give a lesser sanction, invalidate a previous sanction or return a recommended sanction to a hearing panel for review, according to the student code of conduct.

In more serious cases, Bird said both parties have the right to appeal; however, appeals aren’t usually available for sanctions such as a warning or probation.  

Bird said she also has the ability to allow a case to be heard after the 180-day suggested reporting time frame in the code of conduct has passed.

“It’s at my discretion whether I want to hear it after 180 days,” Bird said. “And if it still is very relevant, people still remember facts and information and (it’s) still relevant, we’ll probably hear it.”

The university and the court system might decide to hear the same case, but that doesn’t mean students are tried twice.

The district court system and student conduct rarely overlap, and District Attorney Laura Thomas said she isn’t aware of cases that go through the university or their outcome. Her office and OSU don’t communicate on cases, nor do they need to, she said.

Although students can go through the court system and student conduct simultaneously, they aren’t being tried twice, Thomas said.  

“You don’t really have a right to school, so you’re not losing a right,” she said. “The possible punishment on my side is loss of freedom.”

Although the criminal justice side is focused on protecting the community and punishing the offender, OSU is more concerned with upholding the student code of conduct and the reputation of the university, Thomas said.

When a student is going through the court system and student conduct, Thomas’ office won’t take student conduct’s decision into consideration for the court case’s outcome, Thomas said.

However, when a student gives a statement at a conduct hearing, it could be used in a court case, she said.  

“That would be useful because if (the defendant) made a previous statement to law enforcement, you want to see if the two statements are consistent or if there’s inconsistencies,” Thomas said. “Because at a trial, you can impeach anyone on the stand for a prior inconsistent statement, and that would be true as to the victim, too.”

But so far, Thomas’ office hasn’t used student conduct statements in a court case, she said.

If a defendant is an OSU student, Thomas’ office might make university programs for drugs and alcohol, such as Back on TRAC, part of the defendant’s recommendation.  Back on TRAC is a program that uses a community drug court model to address alcohol and drug issues among students.

Student conduct has an important part at OSU, which is typically to protect students, Ramsey said.  

“It serves a very valid role, and if it’s just a situation where it’s a meeting, pointing someone in the right direction to get services, I think is a big thing for student conduct,” she said. “And it’s a good thing for student conduct from the standpoint of, if someone has a problem with drugs or alcohol let’s stop it right now.”

Kyron Birdine, Tristen Taylor, Whitney Vitale and Lisa Croston, who have had experience with student conduct, declined to be interviewed for this story. Mariott agreed to give an interview via only email after multiple attempts to schedule an interview with her.