Uncertain future for student judiciary

Recent actions by the administration are undermining the University's long-held tradition of peer-administered discipline

Principal Daniel Woolf announces plans to review the University's approach to alcohol-related incidents at a May 31 press conference.
Principal Daniel Woolf announces plans to review the University's approach to alcohol-related incidents at a May 31 press conference.

Regional Supervising Coroner Roger Skinner recommended that health and safety issues be removed from the jurisdiction of various peer/student judiciaries at Queen’s.

The recommendation, which came on May 31, is misguided and fails to demonstrate an understanding of the school’s peer-administered disciplinary system.

Skinner’s long-awaited report was released on the same day as a Journal news story reporting that Provost Bob Silverman formally recommended the disciplining of six students found atop a campus roof in May. Silverman recommended to the University Senate Appeals Board that they withdraw from the University for the 2011 fall semester.

Both developments come at a time when the University is struggling to respond to the deaths of students Cameron Bruce and Habib Khan. Bruce and Khan died after falling from campus buildings in September and December 2010, respectively. As the University moves on from these tragedies, students might be unaware of the potential consequences Skinner’s and Silverman’s actions have for peer-administered discipline at Queen’s.

Since 1898, Queen’s has been the only post-secondary institution in all of North America in which students are tasked with the administration of non-academic discipline. The AMS, Society of Professional and Graduate Students (SGPS) and Main Campus Residents’ Council (MCRC) all operate complaint-driven, peer-adjudicated non-adversarial restorative justice systems. They strive to hold Queen’s students accountable for their actions. At their core, these systems seek to restore any harm done to students, property or communities, while also promoting student safety both on campus and within the Kingston community.

It’s safe to assume that Skinner’s recommendation to remove health and safety issues, including incidents involving alcohol, from the jurisdiction of these systems is largely related to his unfamiliarity with the peer-adjudicated discipline at Queen’s. I was, however, extremely surprised to hear of Silverman’s decision to bypass the AMS non-academic discipline system and actively seek the suspension of six Queen’s students.

As a former employee of the AMS non-academic discipline system, Silverman’s request is deeply concerning to me as it can easily be construed to be both punitive and a public showing of poor faith in the principles of student-run discipline at Queen’s.

Currently the University Senate retains the right to circumvent the student-run discipline systems when a student’s actions threaten the safety of members of the Queen’s community.

The six students in question undoubtedly put themselves in harm’s way, but Silverman has opted to punish them rather than provide a learning opportunity in the hopes that they give back to the Queen’s community. This route would likely have been mandated through the AMS non-academic discipline system.

Questions of fairness also emerge when one considers how Silverman approached certain incidents involving the AMS earlier in the year.

Following the deaths of Cameron Bruce and Habib Khan last year, the Judicial Affairs Office began to experience a large increase in the frequency with which Campus Security was filing trespassing cases with the office. Between January and May 2011, the AMS received upwards of six trespassing cases from Campus Security. The number of trespassing cases from Campus Security in the five years prior to this? Two.

This phenomenon of a sudden surge in a specific type of complaint from the administration is not new to student discipline at Queen’s. Following the now infamous 2005 Aberdeen street party , the Judicial Affairs Office saw a dramatic increase in the number of underage drinking, public intoxication, and kegger cases filed by the University. In 2007-08 the Judicial Affairs Office investigated more than 130 of these infractions. In 2010-11, there were just six.

What accounts for the dramatic decrease in these types of cases in just three years? With the cancellation of Homecoming the University rid itself of responsibility for the illegal street party. As such, Queen’s suddenly seems to care a lot less about a few 18-year-olds doing keg stands on a certain two-block street.

What these inconsistencies illustrate is the volatile nature of student health and safety priorities at Queen’s. Students deserve a genuine, proactive commitment to student safety from the administration, rather than rash, reactive commitments that only emerge in periods of harsh national media coverage. Cancelling Homecoming or punishing six students academically and financially will not improve the health and safety of our university community. For student-run discipline to be effective at improving the well-being of the community, the University must be prepared to improve the consistency of filing complaints with the Judicial Affairs Office.

The development of clear and effective guidelines for complaint filing would minimize the ebb and flow experienced by the AMS non-academic system in the past. The University must also commit more resources to mental health and substance abuse resources on this campus. Great steps have been taken this past semester in the formation of new health and safety initiatives by the department of student affairs. These include the formation of an alcohol working group and an increased financial commitment to Health Counseling and Disability Services, but both bodies would benefit from increased student participation and direction.

For the six students whose status at Queen’s is currently being evaluated by the university Senate Appeals Board, however, any self-recognition on the part of Queen’s Administration regarding these weaknesses and inconsistencies may come too late. Students concerned with either Skinner’s or Silverman’s recommendations can contact both the Senate committee on non-academic discipline or the University Senate Appeals Board.

Brandon Sloan was AMS Judicial Affairs Director for 2010-11.

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