Toward the end of the Fall 2010 Semester, the Office of Student Conduct held group hearings in which students who were accused of similar offenses would meet with the Dean all at once. These hearings were conducted to save time and deviated from normal procedure where each student would report to his/her hearing individually. In doing so, all of the students present in these group hearings became aware of any pending charges and therefore gained knowledge of each others’ disciplinary records.
The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act stipulates that all educational records, including those pertaining to disciplinary matters, are protected from disclosure without a student’s consent. Below you can find the SAO’s correspondences regarding the issue of group hearings. Through these communications, the SAO hopes to shed light on the importance of safeguarding a student’s right to privacy as pursuant to federal law.
UPDATE: Jon Dooley, President of the SAO, met with the Assistant Legal Council of Providence College to discuss this issue. While there was recognition that group hearings “inadvertently” were in violation of FERPA, Jon was informed that students would now be given notice before their hearing and asked to consent to a group hearing. Clearly, this new “corrective” measure was more about getting the College in line legally rather than protecting individual student rights.
Email to Dean of Student Conduct Kevin Butler:
Dear Dean Butler,
It has come to my attention that students are being called into your office for judicial hearings in groups, particularly those who have been involved in citations or write-ups that stem from bar raids or Junior Ring Weekend.
Although I am aware that in certain circumstances, such as when occupants of one dorm room are written up for an alcohol violation, it would then warrant all residents to come in for a hearing, these citations or write-ups are separate and unique to each individual student.
As you well know, student disciplinary records are confidential and protected by the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). With some exceptions, but those not satisfied in these conditions, student records are not to be divulged to anyone without the consent of the student. Therefore, by having students attend a group meeting, where they can learn about the disciplinary records of their peers (to which they have no relation to) without giving consent, you are infringing upon rights pursuant to FERPA as well as each student’s procedural rights set forth in the student handbook. The “Hearing Procedure” established in the student handbook states that, “Student judicial records are confidential and are available only to persons who have permission from the student. Limited judicial information may be shared with other College administrators and faculty members who have a legitimate need-to-know.”
Having discussed this issue with those who have already had their hearings, those in attendance were not aware that the person sitting next to them was cited or received a write-up. Though these citations may have been given out on the same night, or at the same venue, police or administrators distribute them individually and students would have no way of finding about a peer’s disciplinary proceedings with the College. However, due to these meetings, their records now become public and any modicum of privacy is thrown out the window.
If the intent behind these group meetings is to save time, you should recognize that student rights are being significantly defrauded in this process. Not only are student disciplinary records being divulged to other students without their consent, which I am sure could lead to a degree of embarrassment depending on the student, but students are also not given an adequate opportunity to respond to their charges. How can a student be free to explain himself/herself about a private, possibly sensitive situation, while in a room filled with his/her peers?
While I will not disclose the names of students that I know are involved in respect for their privacy so they do not incur more severe sanctions, the meetings in which this has occurred were on November 29 and December 6. Furthermore, I am aware that you have another group meeting scheduled for this morning, December 7, in which more than one student, in separate citations, have their simplified hearing.
In the interest of fairness to the remaining students that must go before Student Conduct, as well as the requirement of abiding by the expectations set forth by FERPA, these meetings need to be stopped immediately. Please be advised that I will consider filing formal FERPA complaints for each student that I speak to whom this has happened, in addition to encouraging them to appeal their sanctions on the grounds consistent with a violation of fair process. Best, Jon Dooley
Office of Student Conduct’s Response:
After meeting with the General Counsel of Providence College, Jon was informed of the proposed solution to group hearings. Now, students involved with similar charges are sent an email explaining the prospect of having a group hearing. Each student is then given the opportunity to ask for an individual hearing, or sign a consent form agreeing to participate in the group hearing.
The solution that Dean Butler has suggested to prevent FERPA conflicts involving group hearings is unacceptable. Explaining to a student that he/she is being asked to come in for a group hearing and then obtaining consent by his/her signature is unfair and will be at the detriment of each student involved. Essentially, this type of solution asks a student to interrupt his/her FERPA rights and is not consistent with a standard of fundamental fairness. This solution would create adherence to FERPA, but as I stated above, seems more about getting the OSC into compliance rather than dealing with the increased number of hearings. Aside from having students sign away their right to privacy, we must recognize the possibility that a student may be apprehensive to request an individual hearing. Even if this only accounted for one student who felt uncomfortable to ask for a private hearing, then that would be one student too many. This alone provides a valid reason as to why this solution is not consistent with a high standard of fairness. Certainly there is a better solution in which students and not the Deans are accommodated.
Formal Complaint to the Compliance Office of the U.S. Department of Education:
Family Policy Compliance Office
U.S. Department of Education
400 Maryland Avenue, SW
Washington, D.C. 20202-5920
BY REGULAR AND CERTIFIED MAIL #7007 3020 0001 5310 1293
To Whom It May Concern:
Re: FERPA Violations
Please accept this letter as a formal compliant regarding multiple violations of students’ Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (“FERPA”) rights at Providence College (“PC”), located at 1 Cunningham Square, Providence, Rhode Island, 02918. Each violation was a result from actions involving student disciplinary proceedings at PC and will be explained in detail through this letter.
The PC Office of Student Conduct, (“OSC”) is the administrative office vested with the responsibility of implementing the College’s disciplinary process. The Office is comprised of a Dean of Student Conduct, Mr. Kevin Butler, an Associate Dean of Student Conduct, Ms. Maureen F. Quinlan, and a Senior Office Assistant, Ms. Karla Misto. These three individuals oversee the adjudication of student hearings in a system that is internal to the College.
When a student is charged with an offense that is inconsistent with College policy, either on campus by school officials or off-campus by local law enforcement agencies, the student is then called into the OSC for a disciplinary hearing. During this hearing, charges are read, the student is able to make a statement and present evidence, and questions may be asked. At the end of the hearing, the Dean of Student Conduct, or his designee, concludes the meeting by finding the student responsible or not responsible for an alleged violation.
As President of a student advocacy organization on campus, several violations of FERPA came to my attention as of December 5, 2010. My organization, the SAO, a student-run group that is not officially recognized by the College but has a faculty moderator, helps promote student rights at PC and guides students who must undergo disciplinary proceedings with the College. It was during the course of advising my peers that multiple students informed me that other students were present during their disciplinary hearing.
Upon further communication with these students, I was able to determine that the OSC was holding group hearings, where several students, each with identical charges, were called in to speak with the Dean. Specifically, these group hearings involved students who were written-up by a College official for possession of alcohol during school functions, namely Junior Ring Weekend (“JRW”), or students who received underage alcohol citations from the Providence Police. At PC, if a student is cited off campus by the police for underage possession of alcohol, he/she is also called in for a hearing in the OSC. The amount of offenses that led to charges during JRW or underage bar raids created an influx of students who would be subject to a hearing. Therefore, to save time, and to have five hearings instead of twenty-five, students were called into the OSC in groups.
Although these students were being charged with the same violation, possession of alcohol, each charge resulted from individual instances where they received their charge. Again, these students all received write-ups or citations, but they did not necessarily occur simultaneously, and are therefore treated as individual cases. Accordingly, as these hearings with multiple students were held, many students were not aware that the person sitting next to him or her was cited or received a write-up. As a result, each student was able to ascertain each other’s citation or write-up in addition to the facts surrounding them, without having given any consent.
The FERPA violations I report to you in this letter occurred as a result of these disciplinary group hearings that specifically occurred on December 6 and December 7, 2010. These hearings were held at different times and included multiple students whose names can be found in Attachment 1. Mr. Butler, who was serving in his capacity as Dean of Student Conduct, adjudicated each of these hearings.
In closing, it is also important to note that on the morning of December 7, 2010, I communicated my concerns about group hearings to Mr. Butler as well as other several PC administrators via email (Attachment 2). Although I highlighted the issue that these hearings were in violation of FERPA, the OSC continued to hold group hearings, which demonstrated behavior that is not consistent with a good faith effort to adhere to the Act. Additionally, none of these students were informed of their right to have individual hearings, either before or during their proceedings. Each student was called into the OSC and throughout his or her adjudication process there was no safeguard to ensure privacy. Further, there is no language in the PC Student Handbook that suggests that students are entitled to individual hearings nor would a student have a right to request an individual hearing should the need arise to prevent FERPA rights from being compromised. Therefore, it is unreasonable to assert that students can assume that this opportunity can be accommodated upon request.
Due to the failure of the OSC to carefully adhere with the expectations set forth by FERPA, many students at PC have had their rights compromised. As such, it is through sections 99.63 and 99.64 of FERPA, which establishes the right to file a complaint if an educational institution fails to comply with the requirements of the Act, that I hereby present this letter of notification for your review.
Thank you in advance for your consideration and attention involving this matter.
Jon M. Dooley