News | Students demonstrate against disciplinary process at Senate

Inconsistent sanctions and targeting of activists on campus

Correction appended November 15, 2012.

A group of roughly fifteen students and professors raised a banner reading “McGill’s Committee on Squashing Dissent” at Senate yesterday while Interim Dean of Students Linda Starkey presented the Annual Report of the Committee on Student Discipline (CSD).

During the question and answer period of Starkey’s presentation, Agricultural and Environmental Sciences Senator Ashraf Ismail asked if the group holding the sign could be heard from, but Schulich Music School Senator Sean Ferguson, who chaired the meeting in the absence of Principal Heather Munroe-Blum, said that they were “not part of the discussion.”

A flyer distributed by one student partaking in the action stated, “We are here because the University’s rules and procedures related to student discipline are interpreted and applied inconsistently and with bias against known student activists.”

“We are here because we do not agree with the [Disciplinary Officer] policing student dissent on campus and the [Disciplinary Officer]’s empowerment to ban dissenters from university properties summarily…” it continued.

The flyer concluded, “We do not support the appointment of André Costopoulos as the Dean of Students following his involvement and promotion of the above named practices in his capacity as Disciplinary Officer during the 2011-2012 year.”

Arts Faculty Senator Catherine Lu asked about the challenges the disciplinary office faced in trying to adjudicate several cases of students involved in similar violations. “Was anything done to ensure that like actions received like sentences? Does anything need to be changed institutionally?” she asked.

Starkey responded that this was a “good question” being addressed by the Code Revision Steering Group, but that ultimately it was the responsibility of the disciplinary officer to “hear every complaint as an individual.” She said that what might be considered by some to be “the same or similar situation” could translate to “different lived experiences.”

A letter sent to Starkey on September 18 and signed by ten McGill professors who served either as advisors or witnesses for students during the disciplinary process last academic year outlined what they claimed to be “wildly disparate sanctions imposed upon students for identical or very similar actions.”

The letter discusses one case in length, in which a student – whose name was redacted from the copy of the letter obtained by The Daily – was admonished and faced no fine or conduct probation after having been found to have violated Sections 5(a), 6, 8(a), 8(b), and 10(a) of the Student Code of Conduct and Disciplinary Procedures.

The letter reads, “He was charged with [action deleted], the act that was the crux of the [Disciplinary Officer]’s argument that the #6party was not a peaceful demonstration immunized against disciplinary action by Article 5(c). Hence, it is natural to expect that none of the #6party demonstrators should face sanctions more serious than those faced by [name deleted].”

“In general, formal hearings resulted in less severe sanctions than did private interviews. Those #6party protesters who had private interviews with Associate Dean Costopoulos, with but one exception that we know of, face both monetary penalties and conduct probation, and yet their cases were disposed by private interview because the allegations they faced were less substantial!” the letter continued.

The letter also discussed disciplinary proceedings brought against students engaged in strike-related activities last spring: “There was no rhyme or reason to who faced summary judgments, who had private interviews, and who had formal hearings; nor was there any regularity in the sanctions imposed.”

The letter requested that all fines and levies of restitution be canceled, payments already made refunded, impositions of conduct probation be lifted, community service requirements imposed be cancelled, that students banned from campus have their records expunged, and that the Dean of Students formally apologize.

The signatories include associate professors Adrienne Hurley, Derek Nystrom, Hasana Sharp, and Michelle Hartman, assistant professors William Clare Roberts, Yuriko Furuhata, and Alanna Thain, professor emerita Abby Lippman, Canada Research Chair in Philosophy and Psychiatry Ian Gold, and James McGill Professor Thomas Lamarre.

In her response sent on September 25, Starkey stated that “there are processes within the Code to address the questions you request,” and that students that had only received decisions based on a disciplinary interview could request a full CSD hearing, and those that had had a hearing could submit an appeal request to the Appeal Committee of the CSD.

Incoming Dean of Students André Costopoulos, who served as the Disciplinary Officer for the Arts faculty last year, told The Daily in an interview this September that the “extreme privacy protection that surrounds the whole disciplinary process means that cases tend to be fairly self-contained. There are no precedents in our system.” He also said that inequitable punishments for the same Code violations could not be the basis of appeal because all information pertaining to particular cases is strictly confidential.

“Nobody can confirm or deny. So that’s a very odd situation, and we need to think about that very carefully,” said Costopoulos.

Science Senator Moe Nasr asked Starkey if there was any process in place to determine the credibility of complaints made against students before a formal disciplinary process was allowed to continue.

Sunci Avlijas, a graduate student “dragged through” the disciplinary process last year, partook in the disruption because of what she believes is a manipulation of the Code of Student Conduct to “squash dissent on campus.”

Though ultimately exonerated after a month-long process, Avlijas was initially charged with violating Article 5(a) of the Code after she attended the Board of Governors meeting disrupted by a group of protestors dressed in pirate costumes. Video footage submitted by Security ultimately exonerated Avlijas. She claims that it was Security’s knowledge that she was politically active on campus that initially led them to file the complaint against her, and that this same knowledge led the disciplinary officer to investigate further.

“I was exonerated, but the process was very time-consuming, and extremely intimidating,” Aylijas told The Daily.

Post-Graduate Student Society Senator Jonathan Mooney asked Starkey how the CSD understood Section 5c of the Code, which stipulates that “nothing in this Article or Code shall be construed to prohibit peaceful assemblies and demonstrations, lawful picketing, or to inhibit free speech.”

Starkey responded that the Committee regularly discusses interpretation of the Code, and that disciplinary officers regularly meet to ensure consistent applications and interpretations of the Code.

In an email to The Daily, Mooney said that he felt “it critical for the committee, the officers, and the Dean’s office to take action to clearly communicate the framework of understanding they share regarding Section 5(c) to students […] In criminal law, one can look to past jurisprudence in gauging how a particular statute is interpretedbycourts,whichprovides an essential safeguard for citizens in terms of being aware of their rights and in ensuring consistency of interpretation. I think more needs to be done to provide students with the same protections.”