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Innocent until proven guilty — or maybe not

In cases involving false accusations, knowing your rights as an accused party is extremely important.
While my experiences as a feminist and as a woman have made me particularly invested in victims’ rights, a recent experience with Mills’ conduct hearing process has given me a new and eye-opening respect for the rights of the accused.

I don’t believe the student judicial process that Mills has in place exists to serve either the potentially wronged or the accused; I think it exists to serve the interests of the administration and their investment in an expedited process in which they are left officially guiltless.

To give you a quick picture of just how skewed this process is, imagine this: you are accused of a violation of the code of conduct. You are notified of this via email. Your hearing is set for two days from the timestamp on the email, and yet you are completely unaware of what exactly it is that you are going to be confronted with on that date. The only information you can utilize in building your defense – witness lists, written statements, any evidence submitted by the accuser – is given to you a mere 24 hours before your hearing. For a school with a social justice mission statement, the lack of regard for due process rights exemplified in Mills’ student judicial process is troubling, to say the least.

Unlike other women’s colleges of comparable size and resources, such as Smith College, Mills does not immediately grant students the right of having their cases heard by an impartial judicial review board. Once a Mills student is accused of a conduct violation by another student, their case is dealt with by a conduct hearing officer who, according to the Student Handbook, participates in “an informal process, which allows for the [accused] student to present their view of the facts, and for witnesses or other credible sources to present information pertinent to the complaint.”

This supposedly “informal” process can result in students having disciplinary records affecting their ability to be accepted into graduate programs or recruited by future employers. In more serious outcomes, students can even being suspended or expelled from the College. So here is my question: What about this process is “informal?” The very real, very permanent consequences for potentially blameless students, or the manner in which these consequences are handed out?

The conduct hearing officer essentially functions as judge, jury and executioner. Not only is the officer the only person who hears testimony from both sides, but they also have the right to make any final decision as to what “more likely than not” happened (this is also referred to as the “preponderance of evidence” standard), and impose whatever sanctions they feel merit the alleged actions of the accused student. In some cases, students do have a chance of getting their cases reviewed by the Student Conduct Hearing Board – but only if the conduct hearing officer feels that a referral to the board is necessary.

The socially conscious culture at Mills has created spaces for marginalized students to feel safe and welcomed, often for the first time in their lives. I can attest to this personally, as a student belonging to a marginalized group who has found a home and a community here at Mills. But I am afraid that this culture has become susceptible to exploitation by those who wish to abuse it to further their own personal vendettas. If our collective mindset is that those who are offended are always in the right, then what is to prevent anyone who claims to be offended from abusing the student judicial process at Mills in retaliation against someone who they feel has wronged them in another way?

I’m not saying that the student judicial process is useless or that it has never been used to discipline students who deserve consequences for unacceptable behavior; however, I think that during this critical time of transition in Mills’ history, it is important that we examine certain aspects of our campus culture and certain formal procedures in our bureaucracy, and decide whether or not they are conducive to the new future we are building.