GRAND FORKS - North Dakota legislators introduced a bill Thursday that would grant university students and student organizations the right to be represented by an attorney during university disciplinary proceedings.
The bill, introduced by state Sen. Ray Holmberg, R-Grand Forks, would grant students the right to be represented by an attorney or non-attorney advocate at the student's expense. The right would not extend to hearings regarding allegations of academic dishonesty.
Student organizations would also have the right to an attorney or advocate.
Holmberg said the bill has multiple sponsors, including state Rep. Lois Delmore, D-Grand Forks.
"We want to make sure it's clear that due process has to be followed," Holmberg said.
The bill comes after a female UND student accused fellow student Caleb Warner of sexual assault in 2010. Although Warner was never charged with a crime, he was banned from the UND campus for three years. His accuser, Jessica Murray, was later charged with falsifying a report to law enforcement. UND's sanctions against Warner were eventually lifted.
UND allows students to bring an adviser with them to a disciplinary hearing. That can be a family member or friend, according to UND's website.
UND requires five business days of prior notice if the student chooses to have an attorney with them, "so that a university attorney may be scheduled as well." A personal adviser doesn't have speaking privileges and cannot disrupt the hearing or be called as a witness, the website states.
The bill introduced by Holmberg states that the attorney or non-attorney advocate "may fully participate during any disciplinary proceeding."
It also allows for students who are suspended for more than 10 days or expelled from an institution to ask a district court to review the university's decision. Under the bill, the court could award monetary damages "in an amount not less than the cost of tuition and fees paid by the student or on the student's behalf, to the institution, for the semester during which the alleged violation occurred or during which a suspension or expulsion was imposed."
This could also include damages in the amount of any scholarship funding lost because of the discipline as well as court costs and attorney's fees, according to the bill.
Prior to seeing a copy of the bill, Linda Donlin, a spokeswoman for the North Dakota University System, provided comments Wednesday from Christopher Wilson, NDSU general counsel in Fargo. He raised concerns that the "educational process" of the disciplinary process would be lost if an adviser is able to act for a student. He also said that there would be the potential for a "disparate system" if some students were able to afford attorneys and others could not.
He also said the system is common in higher education.
Donlin later asked to retract Wilson's comments until the bill had been filed. When provided with a copy of the bill Thursday, Donlin said NDUS staff was researching the nuances of the legislation and planned to discuss it with universities.
Holmberg said Warner's case was "a factor" in the bill being drafted.
Warner's mother, Sherry Warner Seefeld, said North Dakota's bill was "very exciting." She said North Dakota is one of the first states "to consider enacting legislation that addresses at least some of the due process issues that we see on college campuses.
"It at least provides some amount of balance in the hearing process," she said.
Warner Seefeld is now the president of the non-profit Families Advocating for Campus Equality.
Senate Minority Leader Mac Schneider, D-Grand Forks, who represents the UND area, said Wednesday he hadn't seen the bill, but said it was a good idea to look into the issue.
"We want to both punish those who engage in sexual assault, and also ensure the rights of those who are mistakenly accused," said Schneider, an attorney.
Bill sponsor Sen. Kelly Armstrong, R-Dickinson, said he's represented a number of accused students in disciplinary hearings. He said there's the potential for statements made during the hearings to be used in criminal cases.
"It's just too important of a situation to throw a college freshman into all by himself," Armstrong said.