Student_Defenders

Waltner (center) trains students for a full semester before they can help a student going to trial.

In the summer of 2016, Catherine Lynch attended a conference for The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, also known as FIRE, in Philadelphia. Lynch learned about First Amendment rights on campus and schools that had student advocacy programs. This inspired her to wonder whether JMU needed a program to help students in judicial processes through the Office of Student Accountability and Restorative Practices or the Honor Council.  

At the conference, Lynch noticed that her name tag indicated that JMU was a yellow light school. FIRE ranks schools based on a red light, yellow light and green light system. A red light school has at least one policy that clearly restricts freedom of speech, while a green light school is one that’s policies don’t seriously impede upon someone’s right to speech. A yellow light means that that there’s a policy that, due to vague wording, could easily be used to restrict protected expression.

From the FIRE website, JMU has a yellow light rating for the speech code categories of posting, distribution and internet usage policies. JMU has a green light rating for protest and demonstration and advertised commitments to free expression. For harassment policies from the Student Handbook, JMU has a green light rating for harassment, bullying and/or stalking, and a yellow light rating for sexual misconduct. 

During her sophomore year at JMU, Lynch said she realized students weren’t aware of the process when they received violations from OSARP or the Honor Council. Students are notified through email if they have to attend a case review. Lynch said she didn’t think it was easy for students to figure out what was happening when they received strikes, so she founded the Student Defenders organization. 

“I decided to start this program in order to educate students on both their First Amendment rights on campus, what they are allowed to say and do, what the university can and can’t shut down, as well as help them with the judicial proceedings at JMU with OSARP and the Honor Council,” Lynch said. “So, [students] know that they’re prepared walking into that meeting, what their options are, what their choices are.”

Lynch said one of the major goals of Student Defenders isn’t to “fight the administration” but to recognize issues on campus and work toward fixing them. Senior engineering major Gage Waltner is the current director of education for Student Defenders and said he wants to help JMU with its FIRE ranking. Waltner said he hopes they can change JMU to  a green light school. 

Waltner trains the students who become student advocates, and they must go through a semester of training before they can help a student go through a trial. He teaches them about policies in the student handbook, proceedings of Honor Council, rights that are afforded to students and possible charges that can be given. 

OSARP can issue strikes for alcohol violations, vandalism, disorderly conduct, drug violations, harassment/bullying, hazing and trespassing, according to their standards and policies. Students’ first meeting with administration is called a case review. If found responsible, students may accept the decision from the case administrator and then sign a statement indicating acceptance and a commitment to completing required sanctions. Students may also reject a decision from the case administrator and request a re-hearing of the case at an accountability board case review. 

“It’s always just good to have some sort of council, especially just for a student to not feel like they are alone in there,” Waltner said. “It’s kind of an intimidating situation, especially for just, like, a freshman who did something stupid.”

Senior communication sciences and disorders major Veronica Sutter is the publicity chair for Student Defenders. Both Sutter and Waltner went through the OSARP process together, and this led them to become interested in joining Student Defenders.

When Sutter was a sophomore living off-campus, she said she visited Waltner in his dorm room with a few friends to hang out and play cards. There was “mild drinking” going on, and Sutter said that she had “maybe two sips of alcohol” before cops showed up and charged them with underage drinking.

“I had no idea what was going to happen throughout the entire process,” Sutter said. “I definitely wish I had Student Defenders going into it.”

Sutter said OSARP asks students whether they want to accept or reject the charges and that “you have to answer immediately.” Sutter said Student Defenders is there so someone accused of a violation can have someone to talk to if they believe they’re innocent.

“I’m glad that they are being utilized and that students do feel good about working with [Student Defenders],” Director of OSARP Wendy Lushbaugh said. “I think it’s a great resource for students.”

Junior geology major and director of Student Defenders Sam Fairbanks said they’ve dealt with four to five suspension and expulsion cases. Fairbanks said her goal is to help students throughout the process if they are “terrified.” Currently, JMU students have no way of knowing about Student Defenders unless they seek the organization out online.

Fairbanks said they hope to adopt a similar policy to William & Mary where students are made aware of Student Defenders and it’s more of an opt-out instead of an opt-in situation. Bailey Hall is a senior psychology major at William & Mary and was last year’s chair for CHAP, the Conduct and Honor Advisor Program. Ninety percent of students who go through the honor process use a CHAP, which is between 40 to 60 cases a year, Hall said.

In William & Mary’s honor process, the chair of the Honor Council will recommend a student to have a CHAP after an initial meeting. Hall said “it’s pretty close to an opt-out in that sense” and that the CHAPs help “smooth out the process” as they inform students of the different steps in the judicial process. 

“People often don’t realize that they have all their Constitutional rights on campus, so we get all of our First Amendment and due process rights,” Fairbanks said. “Often, people don’t know what to say or what not to say to put them in the right position.”

Contact Mitchell Sasser at sassermp@dukes.jmu.edu. For more coverage of JMU and Harrisonburg news, follow the news desk on Twitter @BreezeNewsJMU.