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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Union starts student rights office

Published: October 3, 2008
Section: Front Page

Student Union President Jason Gray ’10 announced the creation of the Student Union Office of Student Rights and Advocacy in an e-mail to the student body Wednesday night.

“In the past few years, it has come to our attention that there is a need to provide more information about students’ rights on campus,” Gray wrote.

“While the University provides and publishes appropriate information,” Gray wrote, “student-to-student assistance has been missing.”

Consequently, he wrote, “the Student Union has reorganized and reestablished the Office of Student Rights and Advocacy (OSRA), an office of the Student Union that will be providing peer to peer rights-related advisory services.”

Gray explained that the Union is looking for four students to serve alongside OSRA Director Laura Cohen ’09 as peer advisors in the areas of “Student Safety, Residence Issues, Academic Integrity and Speech and Protest.” Applications are due Oct. 7. Cohen could not be reached by time of print.

“We’ve tried this in the past but it’s never been effective,” Gray said in an interview. Gray cited limited scope and not enough staff as problems the peer advisor model has faced in the past.

“I’m not sure if [OSRA] is necessary,” said Director of Student Development and Conduct Erika Lamarre, “but I look forward to meeting the students and hopefully working with them.”

“Students have questions all the time about their rights,” Gray countered. “Last year, [former Director of Student Conduct Advisors] Laura [Cohen] used to have so many people coming to her with questions without us even publicizing it.”

He added, “I think that [the Office of] Student Life does a fine job in the conduct process. We’re just filling the gap for legitimate peer to peer advisory services.”

“The peer engagement is huge,” Lamarre commented, “and I have been working with the [student members of the University Board of Student Conduct] to be more public about their role and to be educators.”

She continued, “perhaps this Union group can work together with the UBSC to be a resource for students.”

For students going through the process with the University Board of Student Conduct, OSRA “will provide…people with expertise to give them advice and assistance,” Gray said.

OSRA members will also act as “policy advocates,” Gray explained. Throughout the course of the year, OSRA might make recommendations to Lamarre.

“We’ve added capability,” said Gray, “we’ve also taken a step back to look at other rights issues as well.”

While OSRA members are charged with advocacy for student rights, they will not serve as advocates or student lawyers in the conduct process. “My concern about the word advocacy [in the OSRA title] is that in the conduct process, students are their own advocates, but they can make use of advisors,” Lamarre stated.

Gray explained that OSRA students will act as “passive advisor[s]” in UBSC conduct hearings.

Along with answering specific student questions, OSRA will distribute ‘know your rights’ information cards to students in an effort to increase student knowledge about their basic rights on campus.

Last year, concern about student rights was on the upswing with the release of the Student Bill of Rights and the controversy surrounding the conduct hearings of TYP student Mamoon Darwish, who was charged with participation in a fistfight and another undisclosed charge. Darwish, who was suspended and barred from campus for nearly two months, alleged that his right to due process and procedural fairness was denied in his initial hearing before the UBSC.

Darwish later appealed his sanctions and was allowed back on campus in April. Current OSRA Director Laura Cohen served as advisor to Darwish during his UBSC and University Board of Appeals hearings process last semester.

Darwish’s case, and its alleged mismanagement, became a cause celebre for the issue of student rights. A demonstration protesting his treatment was held in April.

“It’s all intertwined,” Gray said, but the creation of OSRA “isn’t intended to be a response [to the Darwish case].” However, he added, “both the Student Bill of Rights and Mamoon primed in students’ minds questions of rights.”

While Gray would not call OSRA a “response or a follow up to either” the Student Bill of Rights or the Mamoon Darwish case, when asked if the existence of OSRA might prevent the occurrence of another case similar to Darwish’s, Gray responded, “absolutely. The more knowledge students have about their rights, the better chances the system works fairly.”

In reference to the Darwish case, Lamarre remarked, “there was a lot of misinformation and mythology about the conduct process that came out of certain events last year.”

“If this group can do something to clear up misunderstandings and mythology, I’m all for it,” she said.

“Oftentimes students are misinformed about their rights,” Gray commented, “if you’d had a ‘know your rights’ info card, it’s possible some problems wouldn’t have occurred.”