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Proposed bill focuses on rights of students

The Massachusetts Joint Committee on Higher Education met at the Statehouse Tuesday for a hearing on two higher education bills, one of which focused on the rights of college students.

H.3942, one of the two bills deliberated at the meeting, would require institutions of higher education to inform students of their right to counsel and their right to call their parents in the event of a disciplinary hearing. Several attendees spoke in favor and opposition of the bill, many of whom shared personal experiences supporting their stances.

Theresa Barbo, the third person to testify at the hearing, said she is a “mom behind this legislation.” She told the committee her son was wrongly accused of touching a girl at a party, and while being questioned, he was never granted a phone call home or read his Miranda rights.

“They charged him with a misdemeanor called ‘annoying a person of the opposite sex,’” she said. “A week later, at a suspension hearing at the university, at which no parent or legal counsel were allowed to be present to support him, my son was finally exonerated and reinstated after the victim in question admitted via speaker phone that she had no problem with my son.”

Barbo said the campus administrators had an obligation to protect her son’s rights, and instead, they only focused on the needs of the victim. As a result, her son’s grade point average sank, and he moved home to complete his associate’s degree at a local community college.

“That we endured what we did in a civil society, especially in an enlightened environment of higher education is unconscionable,” she said. “This bill is common sense.’”

In attendance were Massachusetts Reps. Tom Sannicandro, Denise Provost, Aaron Vega, Jay Livingstone, Angelo D’Emilia and Massachusetts Sen. Michael Moore and Eileen Donoghue. Community members in attendance were given the opportunity to testify before the committee by signing in upon entering the room.

Joe Cohn, the legislative and policy director of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, said institutions of higher education often defend their intentions by stating that students should learn to testify for themselves in any disciplinary hearing.

“If you are a parent of a college student and you have a choice of if your child can get the educational value of defending themselves in a process that could end their education permanently or the choice of having a fair proceeding so that they have a legitimate shot at continuing their higher education and getting their degree, I don’t understand how a single parent … would select the first rather than the latter option,” he said.

Melissa Ortendahl, coordinator of alcohol and other drug programs and community standards at Springfield College, said she opposes the inclusion of law enforcement in all student cases because the purpose of the disciplinary hearing is for the school board to offer an unbiased evaluation of the situation.

“A lawyer, hired by a student, is inherently not a neutral party and is serving on the part of one student and one student alone,” she said. “Our boards are trained to be able to be impartial and to be unbiased to all candidates presented and to make a determination as to whether or not the student is responsible for the violation of our school policy.”

Also in opposition to the bill, Beth Devonshire, the director of student conduct at Bridgewater State University, said many incidents that include suspension or expulsion do not need to involve law enforcement.

“The conduct process of officers is far too formal for educators,” she said. “Most of us are not attorneys, and we work diligently on creating an educational, not a criminal … process.”

Justifying the significance of the bill, Cohn said this legislation would excuse the cases of plagiarism and other similar cheating accusations from the need for legal counsel. A 2011 federal law, he added, allows institutions to provide legal counsel for all disciplinary hearings and cases.

“Part of it says that if you are going to provide an attorney, you must provide the attorney to both the accusing and the accused student,” he said. “That sentence, plainly on its face, contemplates and allows you to provide students with lawyers.”

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