New conduct board takes on more cases

By Hattie Stahl

Macalester’s Conduct Hearing Board, a newly created panel of two students and two faculty and staff members, with the power to determine responsibility in cases of alleged violation of College policy, has already heard five cases this semester, up from the two it heard the entire fall semester.
Kyle Wortman ’09 appeared for his second conduct board hearing on Tuesday. He was appealing his first hearing, which took place on Feb. 7, when he received a number of sanctions, the most serious of which resulted in his suspension from all Macalester residence halls.
Wortman must be entirely moved out of the dorms by 4 p.m. today. However, he will be allowed to move back into dorms in the fall.
In an interview, Wortman said that he didn’t receive a fair hearing on appeal, citing that the same four-person board heard his case. Conduct Board rules require those hearing the case have no prior knowledge of the charged student’s conduct history, according to a conduct board member.

“Conduct Hearing Board is a new process, so I understand they’re working out the kinks,” Wortman said. “But I was never put on any form of probation first, I never had a room change or anything.”

No members of the hearing board would comment on specific cases.
The Conduct Hearing Board was created at the start of last semester as part of changes that Associate Dean of Students Jim Hoppe said he hoped would create more continuity within the conduct process.
“Students were saying that they felt they would like to have the person saying they were responsible different from the person who documented the incident,” Hoppe said.

When a relatively serious conduct violation occurs, student offenders are given the option of having their case heard before the Conduct Hearing Board.

The Conduct Hearing Board is separate from Residential Life, and falls under the Division of Student Affairs. No potential hearing board members are currently members of Residential Life staff, said Director of Campus Programs, Brian Wagner.
According to Wortman, the creation of the board is a step in the right direction to distance the hearing from Residential Life. Based on his experience with the Conduct Board, however, Wortman said that the separation is not clear enough. Residential Life retains control of the evidence and subsequently is still strongly connected to the hearing process, he said.
When a conduct violation occurs, the Residence Hall Director (RHD) receives an incident report, and at recommendation from the RHD, the Dean of Students Office receives a report.

If charges are filed with the Dean of Students Office, a student receives either a warning email or a charge letter. When a charge letter is received, the student is informed that he or she has the option of meeting with a Conduct Hearing Officer, or can opt to have a hearing with the Conduct Hearing Board.
Before the implementation of the board, student offenders had hearings with one individual, often an RHD.
“Having a Conduct Hearing Board is something I’ve thought would be great at Macalester for a long time now,” Wagner said. “It gets more members of the community involved, and shares the weight of making decisions, which gives this power more meaning.”

For each hearing, a hearing board is compiled from a pool of five students and five staff, Wagner said. Students are nominated to the pool by the Dean of Students Office, and Macalester College Student Government (MCSG) votes on their approval. The Dean of Students Office selects the staff and faculty members without MCSG approval.

Rachel Tenney ’06 is one of the students who underwent training last fall to serve on a hearing board. For each hearing, all hearing board members are required to state whether they know the student being charged, Tenney said. If they do, another student or staff member will be asked to participate in that conduct hearing instead.
During a Conduct Board Hearing, the case is presented, and then the four-person board talks with Wagner to decide the actions for which the student is responsible.
“We talk as long as we need to figure out what we think they’re responsible for,” Tenney said. “If we think they’re responsible for any of the charges, we open their file and look for previous sanctions. If we see previous sanctions, we’ll build upon those with our sanctions.”

Sanctions range from educational assignments including essay writing or enrolling in a specific program such as an anger management class, to residence hall probation or even suspension from the residence halls.
“We always give the least harsh sanctions that we can in order to change behavior,” Wagner said.
“Our goal [with conduct hearings] is to be educational, to help influence behavior and set expectations of students,” Hoppe said. “We hope to get our point across, to communicate with the student.”

Wortman said, however, that he never benefited from the educational purpose of the hearings. “One of my sanctions was to attend an alcohol educational program in Winton, but that sanction was given to me at the same time as my suspension from the residence halls.”

According to Wortman, two of his friends faced similar charges. “But probably because there was also a personal letter [from another student] attacking me that was used as evidence, I am the only one who has been kicked off campus,” Wortman said. “The arbitrary nature of punishments is concerning.”

Wortman, expecting his two friends to be similarly suspended from residence halls, had been intending to live with them. However, as they have not faced such sanctions, at the time this paper went to print, Wortman had no plans for housing.

Tenney has found that students tend to be less forgiving of other students, especially those still living in the dorms. “It’s hard because we don’t know if the student is telling the truth or not,” Tenney said. ‘It’s really hard.”

For Tenney, who has sat on three hearings this semester, all the students being charged during those hearings had received previous sanctions. “At the point when they’ve already had lesser sanctions against them, we usually give out multiple sanctions,” Tenney said. “But we don’t know anything about the student’s history with conduct policies until after we’ve decided what the student is responsible for, then we open their file.”

Wortman cited what he believed to be a violation of this policy. “I had my appeal yesterday, but it was with the same board,” Wortman said. “They say the process is unbiased and that the board should have no knowledge of your conduct history when they decide what you’re responsible for, but then I was tried again with the same board, and they all already knew me and were already biased against me.”

All appeals to conduct hearing decisions now go only to Hoppe. “This leads to more consistency with deciding what can be appealed,” Hoppe said.

When Hoppe looks at an appeal, he reviews all documentation to decide whether the sanctions decided at the conduct hearing fairly matches the conduct violations as outlined in the Student Handbook policies.
“With an appeal, I can choose to send it back to the board, decrease the sanctions, or even overturn them, but I can’t make the decision more strict,” Hoppe said.