When a student commits a crime on the University of Rhode Island campus, their punishment is determined by a conduct board made up of faculty members and their peers.
“It’s never easy for any of us, and we don’t take it lightly,” said sociology professor Dr. Jill Doerner.
Doerner is part of the URI’s Conduct Board along with approximately six undergraduate students, two graduate students and five faculty members that direct hearings throughout the year that ultimately decide the verdict of a student’s accused crimes and the sanctions that follow. Sanctions can include suspension, removal from the institution or expulsion. All of the members undergo the proper training for this capacity.
The conduct board holds hearings for students involved with both disciplinary and academic honesty cases. The members are presented with all the information on incidents and are provided with any first-hand accounts from witnesses, police reports and all the information gathered from the office of Student Life. Doerner said that the hearings mirror what a civil proceeding would be like.
“Being a criminology professor, I understand the statistics on what constitutes assault or rape,” said Doerner, who mainly teaches classes on criminology and the criminal justice system. She has been on the board for nearly four years and has participated in seven hearings. Last spring, she was a faculty member on her first sexual assault hearing.
“I was a bit nervous,” said Doerner regarding the sexual assault case. She said it’s especially tense when the assailant feels wrongfully accused. After this specific case, Doerner said that she and the other members were debriefed on the verdict of the case. “It’s a difficult subject, no matter what side you’re dealing with,” said Doerner.
URI’s most updated Clery Report, which outlines crimes on campuses, from 2010 through 2012 says there were a total of 37 forcible sex offenses during that span. Doerner thought that this number is low for what is likely occurring and going unreported.
For Doerner, it is important for her to learn about the initial intentions and motivations of the student whether it includes a plagiarism case or sexual assault. Â She said there are often outside factors that cause the student to commit the crime and that board members have to take that into account.
“Because I study crime, I feel I’ve become somewhat desensitized, but it still affects me,” said Doerner. “You’re still weighing ‘am I ruining this person’s life?’” Because of this, emotions run high in all cases for both the students and the conduct board. Doerner said that students are nervous, tense and sometimes embarrassed during the usual one-hour hearings.
Continuing the university’s efforts to educate people on sexual assault can contribute to change the culture of rape on campus. Doerner thinks students need to know that they are responsible if they see something, to say something about it.
“The hardest part of this is the concern that if we push the information to the ground too much, people will stop listening,” said Doerner. The line between paying attention and disregard is something that professionals struggle with at URI.