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School courts note increasing role of professional attorneys

The University's honor and judiciary systems have experienced a very heavy presence of lawyers and lawsuits in recent months compared to peer schools.

The University's honor system has been subject to more recent lawsuits than other colleges and universities, said Rutgers University Prof. Donald McCabe, who researches college honor codes.

"Everybody suing everybody--you see more of this [at the University] than at any other schools," McCabe said.

The University's honor system has been the subject of two lawsuits in the past year as well as an investigation for racial bias by the federal Office of Civil Rights. In addition, the University Judiciary Committee recently had to contend with the heavy involvement of outside lawyers and their settlement negotiations in the trial investigating the assault of second-year College student Alexander "Sandy" Kory. (see related story, this page).

There is a possibility that other schools' honor and judiciary systems could also see more litigation and outside legal involvement soon, McCabe said.

"With all the legal challenges to everything today, I think it's a risk," he said.

Vanderbilt University was hit with a lawsuit from a female student expelled for honor code violations several years ago, said Jimmy Dobbins, Vanderbilt graduate honor council president.

And students accused of violations occasionally threaten to sue Virginia Tech's student judicial system, former Virginia Tech Chief Justice Amanda Rich said.

The recent suits against the University's honor system caused the Board of Visitors to re-examine the role of student juries and consider hiring a legal advisor to the honor system.

But honor and judiciary court leaders at other universities said that legal intervention or threats to sue have not prompted any such re-examinations or any changes in their schools' systems.

The Vanderbilt suit did not undermine the honor court because it was proved to be groundless, Dobbins said.

Similarly, threats to the system at Virginia Tech have never been taken to court due to the strong legal backing that the student courts get from the University, Rich said.

In any case, lawsuits against student honor or judicial systems are unlikely to succeed unless a clear violation of due process or of a university's own regulations has occurred during a case, said Gary Pavela, Director of Judicial Programs at the University of Maryland.

Pavela has been a legal consultant specializing in ethics and student conduct policies at several universities nationwide.

Appeals courts generally defer to "campus rules" in legal cases against student judicial and honor systems, he said.

Beyond lawsuits, the UJC also had to contend with the presence of professional lawyers in the recent Kory v. Smith, Kintz and Tigrett case, where student counselors resigned apparently in fear of being sued and Kory offered to drop the case as part of a settlement offer.

But the University is not alone in the influence of attorneys in student cases.

The representation of professional lawyers at honor trials is increasing at William & Mary, said Marsh Patty, William & Mary Honor Council chair.

"The trend is that more and more lawyers are becoming involved in honor cases," Patty said.

At William & Mary, professional lawyers may witness proceedings and advise an accused student, but may not speak in a hearing.

Despite the regulations on lawyer involvement, he said he fears the increased use of attorneys could undermine the honor system's decisions. "My fear ... for all Virginia schools is that students who have the connections or money to bring in an attorney will be able to beat the system," he added.

Patty said that a guilty student might someday find a way to avoid punishment by using the legal system.

"I feel there is the possibility that students, even if procedures are followed perfectly, will somehow use attorneys to get around the sanction they have received," he said.

At the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, there now is "significant intervention" by professional lawyers in the student courts, which handle both academic and criminal offenses by students, Student Attorney General Drew Haywood said.

However, Haywood said he does not believe that the influence of attorneys is detrimental to the system.

"I haven't felt threatened by the presence of a lawyer," he said.

At UNC and Vanderbilt, lawyers are not permitted to be present at hearings, but attorneys do advise students. At Vanderbilt, they sometimes write appeal statements for students who are found guilty, said Jeff Robinson, president of the Vanderbilt Undergraduate Honor Council.

At the University, students' attorneys are permitted to attend Honor hearings, Vice Chair for Investigations Carter Williams said. However, personal attorneys are not allowed to be present at Judiciary trials.

Student courts vary greatly in the amount of participation they will allow by professional lawyers, said Duke Prof. Sally Cole, Executive Director of the Center for Academic Integrity, an organization of students, faculty and administrators that studies ways to promote academic honesty.

Policies range from "lawyers can run the whole show to lawyers can't be within 100 yards of the building," Cole said.

The increased influence of the outside legal system at the University as compared to neighboring schools coincides with the entirely student-run nature of the honor and judicial systems here.

UNC, Virginia Tech and Vanderbilt all have faculty or administrators on their appeal panels. The University's Honor appeal panels are student-run, but administrators are involved in the judiciary appeal process.

Schools with fewer experiences with lawsuits also do not have a single sanction, as the University's honor system does.

However, it may not be the level of student involvement or the single sanction, but rather the size of the University that make it more vulnerable to suits, McCabe said.

The University is much larger than other schools that also have almost entirely student-run systems, such as Washington and Lee University, Haverford College and Swarthmore College, he said.

Therefore, the greater number of students at the University may make its system more "mysterious" to the average student and therefore more vulnerable to criticism or legal attack, he added.

Despite the influence of lawsuits and attorneys, scholars of honor systems say that they hope the systems will survive because of their positive impacts on students that go beyond simply curbing cheating.

"I hope that our increasingly litigious society does not threaten these systems because they are extremely important to the development of students at a crucial time in their lives," said Dr. Linda Trevino, a Penn State University professor and ethics researcher.

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