The Bill of (Student) Rights

SA President Frank Cunningham ’16 speaks in a meeting on the Bill of Rights proposal

SA President Frank Cunningham ’16 speaks in a meeting on the Bill of Rights proposal

On Thursday, February 25, Student Assembly unveiled the Dartmouth College Students’ Bill of Rights and By-Laws. According to the first article, the bill seeks to facilitate communication and increase transparency between the administration and students. It further aims to codify sections of the student handbook pertaining to “students’ rights, responsibilities, and privileges.” The bill forms part of Student Assembly’s stated effort to promote dialogue on campus about students’ rights.

Article Two pertains to students’ academic rights. It requires the College to accommodate students who have a proven, debilitating injury, although it stipulates that these accommodations must be approved by the professor and the dean. The bill also mandates that course policies, “concerning absences due to participation in events recognized by the College,” are made explicit on syllabi.

Article Three enumerates students’ rights in their dealings with Judicial Affairs, particularly in regards to judicial hearings. It gives students the right to ask at least five questions of the Committee on Standards or the Organizational Adjudication Committee during hearings. Similarly, during these hearings, the bill requires that students be made fully aware of all pertinent rules and regulations. If a student makes an appeal, the bill states that the student is entitled to view tapes of his judicial hearing. The bill would give students the right to not incriminate their peers while interacting with Safety and Security, as well as mandate that a non-response to a question could not be interpreted as “aggravating, misleading, incriminating, or exculpatory.”

Article Four lays out students’ rights with regards to Safety and Security. The bill seems to be aimed at increasing student comfort during interactions with officers. As such, if enacted, Safety and Security would be prohibited from physically intimidating or verbally threatening students. Similarly, the bill grants students the right to request officers of their own gender. It also requires the publication of all S&S protocols and mandates that the college establish a feedback mechanism, whereby students may report officer misconduct. It further seeks to amend noise complaint procedures. If enacted, officers will not be able to enter rooms on the basis of a single noise complaint without probable cause. In the event of a second noise complaint, however, the bill allows Safety and Security to enter the room. Article Five concerns amendments and states that all future amendments must be ratified by Student Assembly and the affected administrative party.

Student Assembly’s town hall meeting was ostensibly called to get student input on the bill of rights. However, Student Assembly had already voted unanimously in favor of the bill before the town hall meeting. It was instead intended to gauge student interest in the new Bill of Rights and to answer questions about the document. Although Student Assembly advertised the town hall extensively, the student and faculty turnout was minimal: approximately thirty students and administrators were present. Student Assembly president Frank Cunningham ‘16 said that he wanted students and administrators to leave the meeting with confidence and further resolve in forming the Bill of Rights. Cunningham added that he wants the bill to help increase trust between the students and administrators, a trust that he said has faded over time. Further, Cunningham emphasized the idea that Dartmouth is a community, and he hopes that the Bill of Rights will unite a student body that has been divided on many issues over the past several months.

Student Affairs Committee co-chair Jeffrey Fastow ‘18 is serving his first term as a member of Student Assembly, and he has big plans for the Bill of Rights. Fastow wanted to form a Bill of Rights to address three significant problems. In discussions with fellow students, and when looking through the student handbook, Fastow and his committee saw a spike in student issues with Dartmouth Safety and Security, student struggles with increased academic rigor, and a lack of transparency with student judicial hearings. When students had an issue with a Safety and Security officer, Fastow noted that there was no organized method for students to file comments about that officer.

Students who attended the meeting seemed very frustrated with Safety and Security. Harry Kinne, the director of the department, attended the town hall to better understand those concerns. Regarding student rights in judicial hearings, Fastow emphasized the shortcomings of the process that restrict the rights of students involved. For example, students do not have the right to see evidence presented against them until the day of their trial, and all witnesses that present evidence supporting a student can be sequestered by the judicial committee.

After Fastow concluded his remarks, Student Assembly opened the floor for questions. One student asked if any other colleges or universities had a bill of rights for the student body, to which Fastow replied that Dartmouth is the first college to embark on such an endeavor. Another student asked how Student Assembly would get the administration to agree to the bill. This brings up an important point, because the administration could certainly choose to disregard to bill. Cunningham responded, calling the Bill of Rights a “document that requires a lot of compromise.” Cunningham added that the bill was important because, “Students feel that there is no formal mechanism where issues can be raised.” Clearly, Student Assembly has not given this question much thought, and does not seem to understand the administration’s position in regards to the bill. Students should also be wary of compromising too much with the administration: the Bill of Rights could simply be a bill that affirms the status quo if the administration got its way.

The most interesting question that was asked came towards the end of the town hall. The student asked, “There are a lot of [diversity] issues that have been coming up on campus over the past few years that seemed like they were not really part of this document. Is there any intention to include those later on, because right now it seems very inadequate?”Cunningham responded to the student’s question, saying that the administration has put together a campaign to deal with diversity issues, and that Student Assembly is monitoring the campaign’s progress closely. He also reassured the student that if the administration fails in its campaign, the Bill of Rights can be used as a mechanism to present student diversity issues to the administration, although the Review notes that Student Assembly did not create the Bill of Rights as a “Bill of Diversity,” but rather as a way to re-emphasize the rights of students on campus. Cunningham also made clear that the Bill of Rights was “a living document,” and could be amended to fit the changing needs of the students.

According to a Student Assembly member, the Bill of Rights represents “a trailblazing enactment.” Although the bill must first be accepted by the administration, it has many benefits that would improve the quality of student life on campus. The goal of the bill is to codify students’ rights into the student handbook, which would allow for increased transparency and administrative accountability so that every student is aware of his rights. The bill has also created an important dialogue on issues with Safety and Security, increased academic rigor, and the judicial affairs process. Many students are frustrated with Parkhurst on how it has addressed student concerns, so hopefully this new dialogue will finally pressure the administration to rethink some aspects of Moving Dartmouth Forward.

There are, however, persistent problems with the bill. First and foremost, the bill is vague and grants too much power to the administration. In Article Two, professors must provide students with accommodations if they have a proven, debilitating injury, yet the accommodations must be approved by the professor and dean. This renders the right moot, transforming it into a mere suggestion to the administration. Moreover, the document has no authority until it is ratified by the administration. While it is an important ideological message, the Student Assembly has a long way to go before the document accomplishes its stated goal.