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Locals protest student conduct hearing on UAlbany bus incident

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By Connor Murphy

3/9/16


 

The University at Albany held a conduct hearing today for three women criminally accused of assault, among other charges, which was closed to the public.

The conduct hearing was about the CDTA bus incident that happened on Jan. 30, when the three women alleged they were assaulted. Videos from the bus that night appear to show a different story, authorities say.

The Capital Area Against Mass Incarceration (CAAMI), a local activist’s group whose mission is to help accused and jailed minorities, said that closing the conduct hearing reduced the transparency surrounding the incident. The group spoke to an audience of demonstrators, university officials and media outside the Liberty Terrace apartments on UAlbany’s campus.

“The reason we’re staying outside on the lawn is because they wouldn’t let us inside the building today,” said Masai Andrews, a CAAMI organizer. “What’s happening inside today is essentially a kangaroo court, a mock hearing where the three women involved in the UAlbany bus incident are not being afforded an opportunity to defend themselves.”

According to Section 4-3B of the student code of conduct, the hearing’s confidentiality is standard procedure, “closed to all but the principals of the case, their witnesses, their advisor and Community Standards,” adding that “Student Conduct Body members in-training may observe.”

The high profile nature of the case led to criticism by lawyers representing Asha Burwell and Ariel Agudio.

The office of Burwell’s lawyer, Frederick Brewington, released a statement claiming that UAlbany is mistreating the three women.

“The utter disregard for the rights of these young women who have not been found guilty of anything, and the intent to do violence to them again through this process demonstrates this so-called place of higher learning has little integrity and less credibility in a real search for the truth,” the press release said.

The conduct hearing occurs at a strange time, argue the defendants’ lawyers, because it is after they have been arraigned in Albany City Court on criminal charges but before the March 29 start date of the formal trial proceedings. The argument made in the defense team’s open letter is that the university is operating with a conflict of interest, serving as witnesses in the conduct hearing now and complainants in the criminal case later.

“In a student conduct process, the results are not usually determined in one day,” said Ed Engelbride, an associate vice president for student affairs. “It’s going to take a little bit of time. The individuals involved, often and generally speaking, have the ability to appeal. So they could appeal the outcome of any determination in the next couple of days.”

Engelbride said it’s not in the university’s jurisdiction to release the results of the conduct hearing, but added that the respondents or other individuals involved were free to do so. Attorney Mark Mishler, representing Agudio, wrote in an email that they’ll eventually have access to recordings of the hearings.

On Feb. 26 President Robert J. Jones said that the conduct and criminal processes were independent of each other, and that the process was standard.

“It’s not only within our rights, it’s basic practice within this university as a part of our student conduct process,” he said. “We do have a student conduct process through which any student that violates our student conduct code must go through.”

According to various media outlets, Burwell, the student criminally charged with falsifying an incident report, has withdrawn from UAlbany. She, along with the still-enrolled Agudio, are reported to have not attended the conduct hearing today on advice from their lawyers.

In an impromptu press conference outside of Liberty Terrace’s main entrance, Engelbride was asked multiple questions on conflict of interest, with reporters citing that any testimony used in the conduct hearing could be used in a court of law. His final word on that issue: “I’ll speak generally because I don’t know a lot about the details of this, but generally speaking, it’s not really a conflict of interest. You’re either going to be held accountable or not at the campus level or guilty or not at the civil abuse level.”

Engelbride explained that both students and faculty had the ability to serve on the conduct hearing board after appropriate training. In this specific case, he could not identify the identities of those serving on the board, but implied they had gone through a process of screening those already trained, available and without conflicts of interest to serve. As for the witnesses in the hearing, it all depended on how much firsthand knowledge they had in regards to the original case, university officials said.

Others, however, think race has much to do with what’s going on.

“They’re not here to get to the bottom of this,” Masai Andrews, from CAAMI, said. He, along with a few other demonstrators, said they were embarrassed and ashamed as alumni. One demonstrator from the crowd, who said she was a professor from the Africana Studies department, shared the sentiment.

Student Association President Jarius Jemmott was not available for comment at the demonstration.

“The University’s student conduct process does not determine whether a student committed a crime, merely whether a student violated the University’s standards of conduct to which all University students are held,” university spokesman Karl Luntta said via email.

“The University’s Code of Conduct applies equally to all of our students, and I have been clear that if any students were found responsible for violating our conduct code, they will be held accountable,” Jones said in a written statement. “The University’s conduct system is appropriate, and I have full confidence that it treats everybody equitably.”

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