Students on the Student Conduct Committee have the power to overturn or confirm the punishments laid down on students by USM conduct officers, if the student appeals the decision, and have even expelled some students in the past.
Charles Silsby, a senior political science major who has served on the committee for two years, said he doesn’t take the responsibility lightly. “It hits you and you’re like ‘I’m dealing with someone’s life here.’ This could mess up their academic career, their professional career.”
Another member, Spencer McBreairty, a sophomore political science major, echoed Silsby’s sentiment. “Members of the SCC take their job very seriously. We don’t get paid to do this; it is a volunteer organization. We attend hearings which are usually early in the morning on weekends. I’m sure there is the fear by some students that bias will occur — as with any group such as juries in the court system. But when push comes to shove, I do believe that we are an objective body.”
Students go before the committee to argue their case to attempt to change punitive measures — disciplinary and academic — imposed upon them by a conduct officer.
The three conduct officers are Stephen Nelson, director of community standards, Joy Pufhal, assistant director of community standards and Natasha Jimenez, a graduate assistant.
Both students and the conduct officers present their cases to the committee. Either side may bring in witnesses such as the responding police officers or other students who witnessed the event in question. Other than those asked to take part in the case, the hearing is closed and the records are sealed.
The committee has the power to administer a myriad of sentences ranging in severity from a disciplinary warning to dismissal from USM.
“I think there’s some real educational value of students evaluating other students’ behavior,” said Nelson.
If someone in trouble thinks they are automatically going to get a lighter punishment by going in front of the committee, they’re far off the mark, said Nelson. Although very rare, Nelson said he’s seen cases where students who were only suspended by a conduct officer ended up kicked out of housing or even expelled by the committee.
The committee is required and outlined in the University of Maine System Student Conduct Code, so all other schools in the system have similar committees. The University of Maine has the Student Conduct Code Committee and University of Maine Farmington has the Conduct Committee.
However, the UMS Student Conduct Code only specifies there must be one student, but USM requires between two and five students and one or two faculty members for each hearing.
Nelson initially declined to release the names of committee members until he could ask their permission. He ultimately released them after The Free Press requested the list under Maine’s Freedom of Access Act.
Nelson said the committee’s decision is binding, except in the cases of students that have been suspended or expelled; they can appeal the decision to Craig Hutchinson, vice president of student life. Hutchinson can’t increase the severity and can only rule the punishment was too harsh or find a procedural error in the process. Nelson said about six out of ten students suspended or dismissed from the university appeal to Hutchinson.
Nelson, a full-time conduct officer for 23 years and director of community standards, said if “you can imagine it in the real world you see it on campus.”
He said the vast majority of cases seen on campus are violations of the residential alcohol and drug policies. Most drug violations involve marijuana though it is not unheard of for students to be caught possessing and using harder drugs such as cocaine and heroin. “You will see garden variety, but each person is unique to their own story,” said Nelson.
Lee Anne Dodge, coordinator of substance abuse prevention, has been serving as a faculty adviser to the SCC for three years. She said she goes through the incident reports before the hearing.
“We jot down questions we may have for the student, the Community Standards officer, and the witnesses,” she says. Other than reviewing, the faculty adviser’s job is the same as the student members, with their vote counting no more or less than students.
There are usually over 1,800 conduct incidents, but Nelson said roughly only 30 go before the committee.
Nelson said he believes most students don’t choose to see the committee because the measures imposed by the officers are “very thoughtful and educative.” Yet mistakes can happen. “If you think we’ve got it wrong we want you to appeal and [we] will help you get there,” said Nelson.
“I want to see every student who doesn’t get dismissed to graduate from USM,” he said. Nelson said he even wants the students dismissed to succeed at another university.
Not everyone has such a high opinion of the committee. A student, who wishes to remain anonymous, appeared before the committee on behalf of another student and was not impressed. “It was my impression that the committee makes up their minds before hearings. They just cared about small facts that could be used as a noose.”
“Students should definitely go before the committee and defend themselves as much as possible,” said the student. “I would warn them not to be too upset if they feel unheard.”
Nelson said he has never received a complaint from someone about the committee being biased and would conduct an investigation if anyone formally filed a complaint with him.
“I’ve had people angry at the outcome,” said Nelson.
Nelson said two years ago a student who didn’t like the ruling became enraged and stormed out, slamming the door. The members of the committee asked to be escorted out by USM police. As a result, Nelson said they now mail the results to the student after the ruling.
Silsby said he has never seen a case where a student outright denied doing what they have done. Usually their qualm was that the punishment had been too severe.
Committee members try to figure out both sides. “It’s less ‘Colombo’ and more just applying common sense and making sure a student is being treated fairly,” said Silsby.
McBreairty said he “has never had a moment of doubt” about the objectivity of members.
If a case ever comes up involving someone they know, they are to abstain in order to keep it as unbiased as possible.
The SCC also comprises the student part of the Academic Integrity Board serving along with two full-time faculty members. The AIB sees cases involving cheating and plagiarism. Accused students have a hearing if they have a previous record or, for first time offenders, if they disagree with the judgment handed down by their professor.
Almost any student can join the committee. The only requirements are that you be taking at least one credit and be in good standing with the university.
McBreairty urged students to join the committee. “The SCC is great about working with you to arrange hearings that meet your needs, as well as the students’. It is a great opportunity not only to serve the USM community for your tenure here, but also a great chance to gain knowledge of the justice system,” he said.
“It also sets a student up to have a great leadership role added to their resume.”
An interested student can simply download and fill out an application, which includes a sample case for the student to judge. Students need to be able to be fair and objective. Nelson said he makes sure committee members don’t side with the student in all circumstances or with the police simply because they’re police.
USM’s three conduct officers are responsible for choosing new members. New members receive a binder that outlines the procedures. Members then go over these, as well as test cases, with managers until they are up to snuff. They also observe cases to get the feel for the experience, before doing any adjudicating themselves.
“We don’t turn away many students because we’re not a very popular committee,” said Nelson.”We don’t have a groundswell of applications.”