Behind Closed Doors 

Kaimin may challenge UM’s secret court system

When Thad Tidzump, a University of Montana student, was charged with partner assault for the second time in as many months last April, Kaimin reporter Matt Gouras decided enough was enough.

Tidzump’s name wasn’t new to Gouras—it was his third partner assault charge, a felony, in the past year. What frustrated Gouras was that after Tidzump’s previous charges, handled through UM’s Student Conduct Code office, he was unable to find out if and what sanctions were imposed on Tidzump.

The Student Conduct Code committee, while not an official court of law, is referred to as “campus court” because it decides how to reprimand students accused of misconduct, ranging from cheating on a test to rape. Campus courts mostly rule on offenses committed on campus, and the strictest sanction they can impose is expulsion. Charges can also be filed in city or county courts simultaneously.

With the Student Conduct Code’s strict confidentiality rules, Gouras says once a case goes to campus court it might as well disappear. For his past assault charges, Gouras wondered, was Tidzump sanctioned? If so, was he suspended, ordered to pay restitution or just given a stern lecture?

Perhaps most importantly, Gouras felt part of his job as a Kaimin reporter was to disclose details about issues that concern the public, especially if it’s an infraction involving a UM student on UM grounds.

Paige Parker, the editor of the Kaimin, adds, “If a student commits an offense on university property, university police decide if the case goes through the UM Student Conduct Code committee. But we don’t know who gets sent or what happens to them once they get there.”

Kaimin advisor Carol Van Valkenburg says that student reporters face access problems similar to those of reporters at other newspapers, but with a frustrating twist. “They are trying to cover their community, which is the campus,” she says. “Students commit violent crimes and they are referred to a committee, and then there is never any information released about the outcome of the proceedings.”

Campus courts, such as the office that investigates alleged violations of the UM Student Conduct Code, are a common feature at universities across the nation. However, campus courts have been the target of growing criticism for a variety of reasons, from their increasing tendency to investigate serious crimes like rape and assault, to their lack of due process protection found in other courts.

But what Gouras and Parker are most concerned about is what they see as the tribunals’ unnecessary secrecy, and they fear universities use the confidential proceedings to underreport or “pad” their crime statistics. The Kaimin has contacted the Student Press Law Center (SPLC), an organization devoted to protecting high school and college journalists’ First Amendment rights, to help with a possible lawsuit that would force UM to release some campus court documents.

The SPLC feels the Kaimin has a case against UM, and is currently looking for an attorney to represent the student newspaper pro bono in the potential lawsuit. In it, the Kaimin would ask that some details from general misconduct cases, which don’t involve allegations of cheating or any other academic misbehavior, be made public.

Congress has taken the first step in opening campus court records. Last fall, they passed the Higher Education Act of 1998, which in part declared that schools couldn’t use the Federal Educational Rights and Privacy Act to avoid revealing the outcome of disciplinary proceedings against students found to have committed a violent crime or non-forcible sex offense. However, the law doesn’t actually mandate disclosure by campus courts.

Most public schools will be required to divulge the result of student court proceedings under their state’s open records law, but Montana, notorious for its zeal to protect citizens against government involvement, has a different way of conducting business.

Van Valkenburg says at the heart of the matter is the debate over whether the Treasure State’s strict privacy provisions bar the release of all information in cases of student conduct.

David Aronofsky, the attorney for UM, maintains that the Montana constitution and state statutes staunchly protect privacy, and the university has to obey the law. He says the Kaimin would be more successful appealing to the Montana Legislature than it would be taking the university to court.

“Montana law provides more privacy for students than even federal law,” Aronofsky notes. “Our hands are tied. We would require the legislature or the Montana Supreme Court to give us guidance. Until they do, we’re prohibited from opening those meetings.”

Mike Hiestand, an attorney for SPLC, feels that Aronofsky’s interpretation of state statutes is too broad.

“When I read the law, it is specifically about academic records,” he says. “That’s the whole reason Congress got into it: Campus court records are not academic records. The law is designed to protect transcripts.”

Hiestand believes the Kaimin could successfully challenge the hushed way campus courts currently operate.

“[Opening campus court records] is one of those things schools are reluctant to do,” he adds. “They don’t want campus crimes revealed. But Congress clearly closed the loophole last October.”

Parker, Gouras and Van Valkenburg agree that the dispute over opening student conduct proceedings to the public and the media needs to be addressed soon.

“It probably is a good thing to get this adjudicated so we know where we stand,” Van Valkenburg says. “There really is a question whether or not those hearings, or the findings from those hearings, ought to be made public.”

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