Experts: Lack of legal clout a flaw in NU judicial board

By design, Northwestern’s in-house judicial system doesn’t hold much legal clout. And Mike Welter, chief of Illinois’ sexual offender registration program, said that’s one of its problems.

“I always like to see (sexual assault cases) taken through the court of law,” Welter said. “The court will not know about this form of non-judicial punishment in sentencing. If (a suspended student) wants to become a police officer, a teacher, a bus driver, he can do any of those things.”

NU established the University Sexual Assault Hearing and Appeals System 10 years ago as an alternative to the court system to help survivors deal with sexual assault quickly and sensitively, said Margo Brown, assistant vice president for student affairs. And among university judicial boards, NU has a “model system,” she said.

One survivor said she went through SAHAS to sidestep the “emotional hell” of the courts.

“SAHAS presents a more appealing alternative,” she said. “That does not mean that the system is fully functional or that it doesn’t have imperfections that need to be addressed.”

But SAHAS came under fire from Women’s Coalition on Tuesday night for the one-year suspension of a student in connection with a sexual assault — a punishment some students say is insufficient.

Had the survivor filed criminal charges in her case, the suspended student could have been charged with criminal sexual assault — a felony offense — although there is a great deal of prosecutorial discretion, Welter said.

If the student had been found guilty in a criminal courtroom, Welter said, he could have been sentenced to probation for two or three years and would have been required to register as a sex offender in Illinois for 10 years.

Critics of university disciplinary hearing boards raise questions about due process and fairness for accused students.

“There are problems with university hearings because of all the influence of political correctness on them,” said NU law Prof. Ronald J. Allen, an expert on evidence and criminal procedure. “Often these panels, under modern conditions, are biased against the perpetrator. An allegation can be tantamount to a conviction.”

Standards for evidence and witnesses are much less stringent in SAHAS than in the criminal justice system. According to SAHAS guidelines, the board “is not required to follow rules of evidence, (but) its findings may not be based on rumor, hearsay, or caprice.”

Lawyers cannot represent students during its proceedings, and any participant can question witnesses.

If the criminal justice system finds a student guilty of sexual assault during a SAHAS proceeding and the student does not file a “timely” appeal of his criminal conviction, he or she would automatically be expelled.

Because university hearings are not legal proceedings, SAHAS’ findings are not a part of the suspended students’ public records. NU’s interpretation of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act prohibits internal university disciplinary action to be made public, said Peggy Barr, vice president for student affairs.

“This is the community’s system,” Brown said. “It’s not the university or administrators making the decision. The community is having a board have the power to make the decision.”

According to the SAHAS guidelines, which are listed in the student handbook, the board members — three faculty members, two staff members and two students — are chosen from pools nominated by the vice president for student affairs, the General Faculty Committee and the Associated Student Government, and then appointed by the president.

SAHAS has no mandatory punishments because the specific circumstances of each case are different and board members need to consider the variations.